Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi led ISIL (ISIS) from the shadows for a little more than two years before he was killed during a raid by US forces on a house in northern Syria.
The US military conducted the operation on Wednesday that killed al-Qurayshi, who US officials say blew himself up – killing members of his own family.
The 45-year-old Iraqi had been an important leader in ISIL’s precursor, the Islamic State of Iraq – an offshoot of al-Qaeda – since soon after the US invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Al-Qurayshi was named the leader of ISIL shortly after his predecessor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blew himself up during a US operation in 2019 in Syria.
Al-Baghdadi had declared an “Islamic caliphate” from a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul after his fighters overran the city and then seized vast swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
By contrast, al-Qurayshi was a low-profile figure who led the group at a time when it was under intense military pressure from US-led, Iraqi and other forces after losing all the territory it had once controlled.
Al-Qurayshi – who has also gone by the names Abdullah Amir Mohammed Saeed al-Mawla and Hajji Abdullah Qardash – was considered a brutal operator, but had largely flown under the radar of Iraqi and US intelligence until he became the ISIL leader.
Al-Qurayshi was born in 1976 in Muhallabiya, a small town inhabited mostly by Iraq’s Turkmen minority to the west of Mosul, the son of a preacher who led Friday prayers in a mosque in the nearby city.
As a student of Islamic studies at the university in Mosul, he specialised more in religious guidance and Islamic jurisprudence than in ISIL’s security and military doctrine, but gained experience through the military and membership of armed groups, according to Iraqi security officials.
At some point in the past, he had served in Saddam’s Hussein’s army, Iraqi security officials say.
Many former soldiers took up arms against US troops after Washington’s representative in Iraq ordered the disbanding of the Iraqi military and black-listed thousands of commanders associated with Hussein’s Baath party.
Al-Qurayshi had joined the armed uprising against the US occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2004, according to research by Feras Kilani, a BBC correspondent who interviewed al-Qurayshi and carried out an investigation into ISIL’s leadership after al-Baghdadi.
In 2008, US forces captured al-Qurayshi in Mosul and detained him in a US detention facility called Camp Bucca, according to Kilani.
Camp Bucca was notorious for holding al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq inmates who made important connections with each other while in the jail, including al-Baghdadi. Al-Qurayshi was released in 2009.
In 2014, al-Qurayshi helped al-Baghdadi take control of the northern city of Mosul, according to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) think-tank.
The think-tank said al-Qurayshi “quickly established himself among the insurgency’s senior ranks and was nicknamed the ‘Professor’ and the ‘Destroyer'”.
He was well-respected among ISIL members as a “brutal policymaker” and was responsible for “eliminating those who opposed al-Baghdadi’s leadership”, it said.
US officials described al-Qurayshi after his death as the “driving force” behind the 2014 genocide of minority Yazidis in northern Iraq, and said he oversaw a network of ISIL branches from Africa to Afghanistan.
ISIL ‘will continue’
Iraqi security officials said al-Qurayshi fled across the border to Syria when ISIL was routed in 2017 and had since been hiding out in remote areas, moving around to avoid detection and trying to resuscitate ISIL.
Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, told Al Jazeera that al-Qurayshi’s death was a “significant strike” against ISIL, but would likely have a limited impact on its operations in the longer term.
“As fas as ISIL operations, they’re still alive, they’re still capable of conducting cross-border operations into Iraq and also have a presence in Syria,” he said.
“But I think there will be degradation initially with [ISIL], much like after al-Baghdadi’s death.”
ISIL is thought to prepare for the killings of its leaders with plans for who will take over. It has yet to comment on al-Qurayshi’s death.
“It’s an organisation not focused on charismatic leadership, but ideas, which is why its leaders have been pretty low-profile,” Aaron Y Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Associated Press news agency.
“I think the [ISIL] machine will continue with whoever the new leader is.”