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New Caliph, Same Old Problems

Baghdadi’s Legacy Looms Large Over the New ISIS Leader

Rubble from the fighting between ISIS and the Philippine government forces, Marawi City, the Philippines, May 2018 Rouelle Umali / Xinhua / eyevine​ / Redux

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is down but not out. In March 2019, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces captured the group’s last territorial stronghold in the Middle East, the town of Baghuz in eastern Syria. Seven months later, the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself after U.S. special operations forces trapped him in a dead-end tunnel. 

But ISIS didn’t die with him. In November, Russell Travers, the acting director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, testified to Congress that over the last year ISIS carried out a number of centrally coordinated transnational attacks and propaganda campaigns, indicating a degree “of enhanced connectivity.” Even after Baghdadi’s death, Travers said, the group “remains robust and—in some areas—is expanding.”

The man upon whom ISIS’s continued resurgence now depends is Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. Little is known about Baghdadi’s successor, whose real identity remains a mystery. (Qurashi is a nom de guerre.) U.S. State Department officials have both described him as a “nobody” and conceded that “nobody knows his background.” But to reunite what remains of the militant organization and build on the momentum of the last year, Qurashi will have to resolve two festering problems that bedeviled his predecessor: an ideological dispute that threatens to tear ISIS apart from within and a rapidly expanding network of global branches and affiliates that presents a raft of challenges to centralized control.

DOCTRINE AND DEBATE

The new caliph didn’t inherit a unified or ideologically coherent organization from Baghdadi. He inherited one that is deeply divided over the doctrinal issue of takfir, or excommunication. The dispute is wide-ranging, but it centers on a single question: whether Muslims who excuse coreligionists who commit “polytheistic” acts—such as voting in elections, which is considered an expression of loyalty to a sovereign other than God—can be declared unbelievers.

One faction within ISIS—the Hazimis, or “extremists”—contends that excusing such acts is itself heretical, making it permissible

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