A day after the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi during a US raid on Syria, many questions remain about the operation and the future of the jihadist group.
How was he?
Qurashi was killed in the city of Atme during a nighttime air raid on his home.
US officials said his location was restricted last year. The owner of the building told AFP Qurashi that he had been living there for 11 months.
The raid came days after ISIS launched its largest operation in years to house fighters from a massive Kurdish prison in the northeastern city of Hasakeh.
“The timing of the operation suggests there was information linking Qurashi to the Ghwayran prison attack,” said Nick Heras, an analyst with the Newlines Institute.
“It wouldn’t be surprising that the US is putting pressure on Turkey to hand over information.”
Turkey has significant power over northwestern Syria and maintains some form of working relationship with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the jihadist who controls most of the Idlib area.
Large numbers of ISIS prisoners are said to have broken out during the Hasakeh attack. Their subsequent trajectories and communications may have created intelligence capabilities.
“If Qurashi intended to include a statement about the recent attacks, that might have opened up an opening,” said Aron Lund, a colleague at Century International.
The Iraqi prime minister on Thursday took credit for gathering information that led to one of the world’s most wanted men.
How did he die?
According to the White House and US defense officials, Qurashi died when he detonated a bomb to avoid capture.
“He killed himself and his immediate family without fighting, even though we tried to demand his surrender and offer him a means of survival,” said US Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie.
The visible damage to the three-storey house — including burn marks and a collapsed portion of the roof — appears to indicate that at least one explosion occurred inside the house.
Neighbors told AFP they heard explosions, but official statements from the US are currently the only version of what happened inside the house.
US Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the identification of Qurashi’s fingerprints was done on the spot, but did not explicitly say whether US forces took or left the body.
A photo that claimed to show the Qurashi’s face and circulated on social media could not be verified by AFP and does not provide clear information about how he died.
Who else was there?
US officials have said at least three civilians were killed in the raid, in addition to Qurashi and two others outside the house whom the special forces fired at.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war observer said it had reports of 13 deaths, 12 of them in the house.
The head of the observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, said Qurashi had two wives, both of whom were killed in the raid, along with the ISIS leader’s sister and her adult daughter.
He also said the bodies of four children were recovered, as well as two other incomplete bodies that may have belonged to children.
Save the Children said at least six children, including two infants, were killed in the raid.
Abdel Rahman said one of Qurashi’s senior staff was also killed.
One of Qurashi’s injured children was treated by civil defense but then transferred to an unknown location by troops associated with HTS.
Why in Idlib?
Qurashi was hiding in a town far from the ISIS area of operations and under the control of HTS, a rival jihadist group.
Still, analysts argue that it is not surprising that he was traced to an area far from the heart of ISIS, which occupies the arid plains that cross the Iraqi-Syrian border between the Tigris and Euphrates.
His predecessor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also killed in October 2019 in Idlib province, about 15 kilometers away.
“Idlib is a messy war zone full of IDPs, with few proper police and no real state structures or registration,” Lund said.
Hassan Hassan, who wrote a book on ISIS, said Idlib is safer for an ISIS leader than the regions of western Iraq or eastern Syria where anti-ISIS forces have years of experience tracking down jihadists.
“It’s a hostile area for ISIS because its rivals dominate that region of northern Syria, but it’s just the right place to hide where no one expects you to be,” he said.
Hassan, who is also an analyst with Newlines, said close Qurashi associates had been leading the group’s operations and building businesses in the area for two years.
What now for ISIS?
The week-long attack on Ghwayran prison launched by ISIS two weeks earlier had raised fears of a resurgence nearly three years after ISIS lost the last remnants of its “caliphate”.
For Hassan, however, the prison attack was “not part of a strategic comeback, nor an indication of recovery”.
“The group remains weak and exposed,” he said, adding that Thursday’s raid was further evidence of increasing efficiency by the US and allied forces tasked with tracking down ISIS leaders.
Qurashi was largely invisible during his time at the helm, but the group, which has not yet acknowledged his death, will nevertheless have to find a new “caliph”.
Experts say there are few obvious names for a successor, but the next ISIS leader will most likely come from the same area.
Qurashi was an ethnic Turkmen from the Iraqi city of Tal Afar who played a key role in the campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Yazidi minority in 2014.