Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidah: Likeliest Candidate to be Next Islamic State Leader

    Although the next leader of the Islamic State group has yet to be announced, New Lines has obtained detailed information about the likeliest candidate to replace Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi, who blew himself up on Feb. 3 in an effort to evade U.S. Special Forces as they raided his house in northern Syria. That person is Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai.

    Known by numerous noms de guerre, including Ustath Zaid (Teacher or Professor Zaid), Abu Khattab al-Iraqi, Abu al-Moez al-Iraqi and Abu Ishaq, he returned to Syria from Turkey about a year ago. Sumaidai’s profile is indicative of a new phase for the Islamic State and its new generation of leaders, and reinforces views that the organization is running out of leaders from the founding years in 2003 and 2004. That said, he seems to have what it takes to reenergize the group’s base and claim legitimacy even more so than the previous leader.

    The details we obtained about Sumaidai’s life, never published before, have been gathered from people who knew him personally, including one who was part of his inner circle and another who advised the Iraqi government. Separately, references to Sumaidai’s current role within the organization were previously made to the news organization Alaraby Aljadid and to New Lines. Moreover, his name as a top contender for the role of amir al-mu’minin (the leader of the faithful) has been floated in jihadist circles in Syria.

    Another strong indicator in his favor is that he is also one of the rare candidates who is a descendant of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, a usual preference for an amir by groups like the Islamic State. (He is from the same tribe as Iraq’s current Sunni grand mufti, Mahdi bin Ahmed al-Sumaidai.) The Islamic State is in more need today than ever to piggyback on such lineage credentials; and unlike with the previous leader, who many suspected was a Turkman and not an Arab, such bona fides are not in dispute.

    Sumaidai joined the Islamic State in 2013, just before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi unified his Iraqi group with its then Syrian affiliate and renamed it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Before then he was a member of Ansar al-Islam, an old organization in northern Iraq made up of Iraqi and Arab veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan and Chechnya, which existed under that name in 2001 and which emerged out of local extremist movements that fought against both the Kurds and Saddam Hussain throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. When he joined the Islamic State, he was connecting with old associates and at a time when whatever remained of the Iraqi insurgency had to somehow fit within the expanding jihadist theater in Syria.

    In 2013, the remnants of his former group had relocated to Syria as the war there took a sectarian turn and as Islamist and jihadist organizations started to dominate the insurgency. Ansar al-Islam had already hemorrhaged over the years, with members and leaders either abandoning the battlefield, joining ascendant groups like the Islamic State or forming a new franchise in northern Syria. Ansar al-Islam, once a significant actor in the Iraqi insurgency scene, is now a shell of its former self, mostly absorbed within the ranks of the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations. Also in 2013, and perhaps more important, old associates of his had just moved to Syria and played a role in recruiting jihadist veterans like him to the Islamic State.

    According to a source in Baghdad, this pattern of former Ansar al-Islam joining the Islamic State was observed as recently as 2018-2019. A considerable number of former Ansar al-Islam members pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in areas between Diyala and Kirkuk and along the Hamrin mountains, as a way to fight against Shiite and Kurdish forces in their regions and because their former group had become too weak to even wage insurgency there.

    Almost immediately after Sumaidai joined the Islamic State, he was given vital roles within the organization. This signaled an established trust that preceded his membership, and the reason had to do with his yearslong role as a jihadist indoctrinator in Mosul, close to where Baghdadi operated at the time, as well as old connections that we will get to later. He preached at a religious center in Bab Al-Jadid called Imam al-Mutaqeen (the Leader of the Pious), from which a large number of the Islamic State’s preachers and judges graduated. One of his known students, arrested in 2019, confirmed to the Iraqi TV network Al Iraqiya this key role played by Sumaidai. The student, Qassem Mohammed or Abu Hamza, also started as a member of Ansar al-Islam in Baaj and joined the Islamic State in early 2009. Abu Hamza claimed that his former mentor was appointed the Islamic State’s chief judge sometime in 2014 after the group seized Mosul and declared a caliphate.

    Sumaidai was close to Qurashi, the recently killed leader. Qurashi was the one behind his appointment as “qadi al-dam,” a judge specializing in murder or capital punishment cases, in Nineveh sometime around 2014. This close relationship between the two was confirmed by the BBC’s Feras Kilani. Citing Iraqi intelligence, Kilani reported that Qurashi worked with Sumaidai after the killing of Baghdadi on restructuring the top echelon of the group, along with two other aides, Haji Hamed and Haji Tayseer. When Qurashi took over the organization in late 2019, Sumaidai had already been a member of its executive body known as the Delegated Committee since 2016, even as he retained his role as a top judge.

    In 2017, he was rumored to have left Syria for southern Turkey during the battle to expel the group from Raqqa. About a year ago, he returned to Syria. His return was presumably not because the former leader foresaw his demise. It was because he was working hard to revitalize the group, as U.S. intelligence also suggested about Qurashi’s plans before his killing. For that he needed to utilize a credential only Sumaidai had: too many of the group’s preachers and members studied religion under him. Qurashi wanted him to help energize the group, maintain followers’ trust in the organization and revitalize its activities. So his return was discernible by the organization’s base, which made such information “knowable” in a way such details are usually hard to know in a secretive organization like the Islamic State.

    As with any inside details about such secret organizations, this information should be taken with a grain of salt. However, there are indisputable facts about Sumaidai, his role within the organization and his credentials.

    First, he is one of the last remaining “heavyweights” within the organization, and he will be either the next leader or one of its most formidable leaders. Second, he was one of a handful of leaders who were close to the group’s two former leaders years before the establishment of the caliphate in 2014. Third, and more significantly, he is a relatively recent entrant to the organization and the highest-ranking member with such a profile. Members with such high positions in the inner circle tended to be older members of the organizations who were present at the creation in 2003 and 2004 or younger members who were recruited directly and organically in the early years.

    It says a great deal about the organization that a top contender, or even a top aide, joined it from another organization as recently as 2013, which brings me back to the point about the old associates who helped him gain the trust of a notoriously paranoid organization.

    He joined the organization in 2013 with the help of Qurashi but also Qurashi’s mentor Abu Ali al-Anbari, who had been released from Iraqi prisons several months before Sumaidai pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. Both helped him climb the ladder swiftly immediately after he switched sides. This level of trust does not happen overnight, as anyone who has studied the organization would attest. Even his yearslong radical preaching in Mosul would not have been sufficient for the organization to trust him in its inner circles. Both Anbari and Sumaidai had old ties to Ansar al-Islam that predated the Islamic State, and it was those old connections that helped Sumaidai gain that trust within the organization and become a member of its Delegated Committee in a matter of two years. Qurashi, the recently killed leader, was similarly recruited from Ansar al-Islam into the Islamic State through Anbari, although that happened from the early years.

    Shortly after Anbari left prison in the spring 2012, he headed to Syria. There, he got involved in the jihadist infighting between his group and Syrian jihadists who defected from it and fought against it in 2013. He rallied for the Islamic State, touring the rebel-held parts of the country to reassert allegiance to Baghdadi and reconnecting with old jihadist pals, including those belonging to Ansar al-Islam. We also know that Anbari was one of the jihadists closest to Ansar al-Islam in its early years, and he helped facilitate its connection with the would-be founder of the Islamic State, the notorious Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2002. Anbari would become Zarqawi’s deputy when al Qaeda in Iraq was established in 2004 and even the leader of a short-lived formation that al Qaeda nominally was part of in 2006. Qurashi’s appointment in 2019 was the closest this shadowy faction within the Islamic State got to power, and the next leader is likely to be the second member from it to ascend to the group’s overall leadership.

    Sumaidai’s likely appointment attests to the fractured and weakened state of the Islamic State. When the group started to lose a number of its most seasoned leaders in 2015 and 2016, the effect of leadership decapitation was minimal because the organization still had a functioning caliphate. Or the effect of the loss of its charismatic and visible figures such as former spokesperson Abu Muhammed al-Adnani and former caliph aide Anbari was not immediately discernible to us from the outside. The loss of its founder and longest-serving caliph Baghdadi in 2019 was the ultimate test of the group’s ability to do without the man sitting at its helm, and the leadership gap he left behind has been felt as the group has struggled to field charismatic leaders or revive itself in any significant ways.

    Today, with the killing of Baghdadi’s successor, who failed even to make a public speech, much less to revive the group after its caliphate was wiped out, the Islamic State is arguably facing its worst crisis since 2008. It can recover as it did after its prior defeat in 2008 in Iraq, but it can also fail to replicate the experience without the cumulative effects of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, the fierce sectarian hostility and the historic opportunity of a war in neighboring Syria in 2011.

    Nevertheless, Sumaidai is more qualified than the previous leader to take the role for several reasons: his demonstrated religious qualification and lineage as well as the fact that many of the group’s preachers studied under him. The previous leader’s lineage was initially disputed, and his appointment violated a known Islamic requirement for a caliph — to have no visible mental or bodily flaws (he reportedly had an amputated limb). Because of his preaching days, Sumaidai has a wider appeal within the organization (and even outside it) than his predecessor, whose influence was primarily limited to a tightknit faction within the organization. In this sense, and if he does become the leader, he is better positioned to reenergize the group than his former boss.

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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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