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Who will lead the Islamic State now?

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The leader of the Islamic State was a relative unknown

Our research explains why these questions are critical when assessing the impact on a terrorist group following the death of its leader. Our next book studying the types of terrorist leadership, “Terror in Transition: Leadership and Succession in Terrorist Organizationssuggests that al-Qurayshi meets the criteria of a “figurehead,” a type of silent leader who has not actively led the Islamic State.

Al Qurayshi became the leader of the Islamic State in 2019 as a relative stranger. He operated underground, apparently out of fear of the kind of counterterrorism action that killed al-Baghdadi, his predecessor.

Open-source information to date suggests that al-Qurayshi did not direct his organization’s tactics, means of gathering resources, or mission. It was largely an absent leader who relied on others to lead the group.

According to our research, this type of leader is not well placed to rejuvenate a struggling organization, such as the group al-Qurayshi inherited – but al-Qurayshi’s death could now create an opening for a more active successor. So, even though his death may have caused a serious blow to the Islamic State, as US officials claim, a more dynamic leader may soon emerge to fill this gap.

We have identified 5 types of leaders

To develop our typology of leaders, we have examined 33 religiously-related terrorist organizations that have experienced at least one leadership change. We have identified five types of leaders, based not on personality traits, but on the direction a leader takes in the organization relative to the foundations laid by the founding leaders. Do successors undertake change or continuity? Are they actively involved in determining the group’s next steps?

One of the most common types, what we call “the keeper”, maintains the path set by the founder of the group and does not make significant changes. The current leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an example of this: since 2011, he has carried on the legacy of Ben Laden.

Another common type, “the fixer”, is a leader who makes significant adjustments to a group’s tactics or the way it acquires and manages resources. Interestingly, as the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s, Zawahiri operated in fixer mode after succeeding a leader, suggesting that an individual can pursue different types of leadership.

A third type of leader, “a visionary,” is someone who makes major changes to their group’s tactics and mission. This type of leader may have the most potential to rejuvenate a fledgling organization by infusing it with both a new framework and new tactics, but may also introduce divisions. Al-Qurayshi’s predecessor, al-Baghdadi, was that type of leader. He declared the creation of a new caliphate, naming himself religious leader and political leader, and transformed the organization into a pseudo-government.

A fourth, less common type of leader, “a signaller”, makes significant changes to the group’s mission but leaves its tactics and approach to resource acquisition largely unchanged. The previous iteration of the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq, had this type of leader in both Abu Hamza al-Muhajer and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. They transitioned the group from al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq, a change in the way the group presented its mission, although it is not yet functioning as the state it declared himself to be.

What do we know about “figureheads”?

Figureheads like al-Qurayshi are quite rare, according to our study. Most leaders of religious terrorist organizations take a more active role in managing tactics, resources, and/or the mission. Of course, analysts know little about him compared to other rulers – so why do we categorize al-Qurayshi as a figurehead? On the one hand, the group moved to downplay his leader even before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death, Qurayshi therefore inherited a group with less emphasis on his role.

Considering his religious formation and his experience of Islamic State judge overseeing its courts, it is interesting to note that Qurayshi did not play a greater role in determining the direction of the Islamic State. He was the only Islamic State leader not to issue a video or voice address, for example. This lack of communication with his followers meant that he could not play a meaningful role in shaping the group’s mission or ideology.

In addition, the Islamic State has grown more decentralized after the collapse of the Caliphate in 2017 under the leadership of al-Baghdadi. Decentralization can help an organization resist counterterrorism pressures, but also hampers a leader’s ability to direct attacks. The Islamic State had already returned to its insurgent roots before Qurayshi took over, so he may not have seen the need to manage operations, especially when increased involvement would entail greater risks to his life.

In other examples of the death of a figurehead, rare as they are, these deaths paved the way for the emergence of more dynamic leaders. The Islamic State has a solid history of these leaders through its evolution from Al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq to the current Islamic State. The big question now is whether Qurayshi’s death can mean that a more dynamic leader is about to emerge, especially as the Islamic State tries to gain momentum across Syria and Iraq.