It was recently officially confirmed by two intelligence services that Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi is the new head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Prior to the reveal of his identity, Al-Salbi was known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi: a name implying that he is of Qurayshi descent and thus legitimizes his role as a new ‘caliph’.
Early Years and ISIL Roots
Al-Salbi — alias Hajji ‘Abdallah — was born in the small northwestern Iraqi city Tal Afar; a city once under Al-Qaeda control from 2004 to 2006 and a subsequent strategic base for the Islamic State. He graduated with a degree in Sharia law from the University of Mosul, was a religious scholar in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and is believed to be a founding member of ISIL.
Like most of the Islamic State’s leading fighters, he is a former officer who had served under Saddam Hussein and played a prominent role in the fight against the United States and its allies. In 2004, he was captured by American troops for associations with al-Qaeda and placed in Camp Bucca detention center where he met al-Baghdadi.
It was only natural that al-Baghdadi took advantage of his period of detention to indoctrinate as many inmates as possible and set up a common vision, namely the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Within Camp Bucca, Baghdadi created a network of hardline fighters that he destined for positions of leadership in the Islamic State.
The new ‘caliph’, nicknamed as the ‘Professor’, is one of those fighters connected with Baghdadi and adopted his unwavering commitment to the Islamic State. He appears to have led many of their international operations and he is considered to have played a decisive role in the enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and children, as well as the murder of an equal number of Yazidi men in Iraq, started in 2014.
Although the succession of Baghdadi by al-Salbi was only recently confirmed, he is likely to have taken over the day-to-day operations of the terrorist organisation well before the former’s death. Being wounded and suffering from a chronic illness, al-Baghdadi had already designated a successor since last August. During that time, the Rewards for Justice Program (RFJ) of the US Department of State announced a reward up to $5 million for information regarding al-Salbi, placing him on the list with the most wanted terrorists. There is no doubt that he will be an efficient leader that will attempt to reinvigorate the Islamic State. What remains to be seen is whether he will be as inspiring as his predecessor who had been admittedly very successful in recruiting fighters from all around the world and inciting them to fight for a common cause.
Recent discussions around its new leader indicate that the Islamic State is indeed regenerating and confirms fears about a possible re-emergence. The situation both in Iraq and Syria has created a favourable environment for ISIL to rebuild its strengths and organise its operations. This is certainly not a simple task without any territory under their control, however, regional instability has disrupted security and reduced the effectiveness of the security services.
If tensions and conflict are not addressed soon, intelligence gathering will be extremely challenging, and attempts to prevent the Islamic State from breaking their imprisoned fighters out and retaking territory will be even less likely to be successful. Consequently, prisons where IS fighters are held should be properly guarded, in order to avoid a mass break out, and a particular attention must be focused on monitoring desert regions around the Iraq-Syria border, and other areas which are beyond the control of the central government.
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