Since the official announcement of the new Islamic State (IS) leader, branches and members of IS have been publicly pledging their allegiance to Abu al-Hasan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi. Notably, even though a name was provided by the IS spokesman, the actual identity of the new leader remains uncertain, but there have been some suggestions of who he may be.
Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai is named one of the possible persons, with Juma Awad al-Badri, the brother of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first so-called caliph of IS being another possibility.
While the selection of al-Sumaidai, who is better known as Ustaz Zaid (teacher or professor Zaid) has been indicated by some pro-al-Qaeda channels, three Iraqi and American sources assessed that Juma al-Badri is the new leader.
Ustaz Zaid is believed to have joined IS in 2013, so he is not one of the founders of the group, but it is believed that he was close to al-Baghdadi and also to Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi. The latter is Zaid’s own predecessor and a prominent member of Ansar al-Islam, the veteran Iraqi extremist group whose many members have joined IS, making him well-known and supported among IS ranks and elevating him to the organization’s leadership.
Whoever the new leader of IS is, the organization has chosen not to reveal his identity to its followers. In a way similar to his predecessor, it is possible that he may not be seen nor heard from which may have long-term impacts on recruitment.
According to a report by Akhbar Alan, it was this same consideration that urged al-Baghdadi to go public.
Although, according to some interpretations of the Islamic Fiqh regarding the caliph, he must be recognizable and have a presence among followers. IS, according to its own interpretations, regards security as a very important need and thus justifies the absence of the caliph from public view.
Pledges of Allegiance to the New Leader of IS
After the official acknowledgment of the death of Abu Ibrahim Al-Quraishi and the announcement of the new leader in an audio message by Abu Umar al-Muhajir, the new spokesman of IS, media channels related to the group have been publishing photo sets of members pledging allegiance to the new leader.
IS supporters around the world have also been sharing messages on social media and in messaging application channels, pledging allegiance to the new so-called caliph.
As of the publication of this article, twelve provinces of IS have pledged allegiance to the new caliph: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Khurasan (ISKP), West Africa (ISWAP), Libya, Somalia, East Asia (ISEAP), Pakistan (ISPP), India (ISHP), Sinai, and Central Africa (ISCAP).
The Islamic State’s Pakistan Province (ISPP) is believed to have had confirmed the death of Abu Ibrahim Al-Quraishi and pledged allegiance to the new leader in a letter allegedly signed by Abu Mahmud, the spokesman of ISPP in a letter leaked on 15 Feb, but it was one of the last provinces to pledge allegiance to the new leader.
Published photos from these branches can reveal clues about the numbers and strength of IS in their relative regions. Most of the photos show small cells, but there are bigger groups with a relatively large number of fighters, the biggest of them in West Africa and Somalia. The number of fighters in these photos cannot show the accurate and exact number of fighters in every region (as this is very hard to know), but it can provide some kind of indication about the strength, influence, and control of IS branches in every region.
The Iraq group was the first network that IS-related media channels posted photos giving their bayah to its new leader. But in general, eight bunches of photos came from Iraq. The first one was from Kirkuk. In photos taken outdoors, not only are visible facial features such as eyes blurred but the backgrounds are also blurred, apparently to avoid detection and geolocation.
It is believed that most IS cells in the area are under the control of Turkmen members and, as one writer claims, the new leader may have strong support among these militants. This is supported by words from the new spokesman of IS Abu Umar al-Muhajir in his audio message announcing the new leader. Al-Muhajir said that the new caliph has been selected based on the will and recommendation of Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi, who was believed to be Abdullah Qardash, from the Turkmens, not an Arab and from Quraish tribe as IS was claiming.
Seven more bunches of photos from Iraq came from Anbar, Salah al-Din, southern Iraq, Diyala, north of Baghdad, Nineveh and Tigris.
One can write more about weapons they are showcasing, but they are mostly armed with small arms and light weapons including rifles, machine guns, and RPGs.
The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) was the second, and apparently, the largest branch that pledged allegiance to the new leader of IS, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi. The photos came in six rounds from different regions, mostly in Nigeria. The first of these came in from somewhere in the Lake Chad region. The photos show large numbers of well-equipped fighters. As experts have indicated, ISWAP has been one of the most active IS branches in recent years, and it spans across swathes of several countries.
The second bunch of photos from ISWAP, which signalled the tenth pledge of allegiance to the new leader of IS, came from the al-Faruq area—which refers to a forested area near the Yobe/Borno border.
ISWAP released more photos for the third time and this time again from the Sambisa area in Nigeria. It was the twelfth pledge of allegiance to the new leader of IS.
The fourth round of photos from ISWAP, which was the thirteenth pledge of allegiance to Abu al-Hasan al-Hashemi, once again came from Nigeria, this time from the Banki area near the border with Cameroon.
Vincent Foucher, a security expert from the region, says that the presence of underage fighters in Banki may be an indication that they are former fighters of the deceased leader of JASDJ (Boko Haram) Abu Bakr Shekau, who joined ISWAP after his death.
The fifth group of photos that were released by ISWAP media comprised the fourteenth pledge of allegiance to the new leader of ISIS, but it originated from IS in Greater Sahara (ISGS).
The fifteenth pledge of allegiance to the new IS leader also came from ISWAP, probably from a place named Kirenawa in Borno state, Nigeria. It was the sixth pledge from ISWAP.
ISWAP fighters seem to be well-equipped and heavily armed. Militant Wire co-founder and weapons analyst War Noir identified their weapons as including a Bulgarian Arsenal MG-1M general-purpose machine gun (made in Kazancak), a Polish Beryl M762 rifle, and a Yugoslavian/Serbian Zastava M84 machine gun. The photos also show fighters in a light pickup truck armed with a ZSU-23-2 twin-barreled autocannon.
Sham (Syria) was the third province from which IS published photos of its members pledging allegiance to the new leader of IS. It was also the first to publish a video of different cells doing so.
Like Iraq, most of the photos from Syria are taken of cells inside buildings and outdoors with outdoor backgrounds blurred. The fighters are observably equipped with small arms.
Somalia was the fourth province to pledge allegiance to the new leader of IS, and, like ISWAP, Somalia Province shows many fighters with small arms, and the background is blurred in just one of the photos. The presence of underage boys during the bayah is only seen in photos from Somalia and Banki.
IS in East Asia (ISEAP), which mostly covers Indonesia and the Philippines, was the fifth province to pledge allegiance to their new yet-unseen leader. ISEAP is one of the lesser active branches of IS, but on March 17, it claimed the killing of 14 soldiers of the Philippines army in an attack south of the country.
The small branch in Yemen was the seventh of IS to pledge allegiance early on. The photos only show one place with nine fighters who are armed with light weapons. It should be noted that the Yemeni branch of IS has been fairly inactive.
The ninth pledge of allegiance to the new leader of IS came from the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP), which regards itself as one of the most important branches of the group. Photos of the pledge show small cells of at least three members and a maximum of 12 members in different places inside rooms and outdoors armed with light weapons. It appears that the cells are in very different regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Libya, alongside Yemen, is one of the smaller branches of IS. Although in 2014, after the oath of allegiance of militias in Libya to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first so-called caliph of IS, the network in Libya was active under three branches. However, after years of fighting with rival forces and the government, as well as suffering from US airstrikes, the Libyan branch of IS has not been able to recover its former strength, nor restructure itself amid such heavy setbacks and losses. As with the recent photos from Yemen, those from the Libyan IS branch only show nine fighters participating in the pledge.
The Islamic State Pakistan Province sent the sixteenth pledge of allegiance to the new IS leader, although it was the branch that in February leaked the selection of the new leader for the group. The exact location of where the photos have been taken is unknown.
One of the latest attacks of the group was a suicide attack on a mosque in Peshawar with more than 50 killed and more than 100 injured.
The twenty-first pledge of allegiance to the new IS leader came from the Islamic State Hind Province (India/Kashmir). It also shows a small number of militants. Previously IS has been claiming attacks, mostly assassinations in Kashmir.
The 24th pledge of allegiance to the new IS leader came from IS Central Africa Province (ISCAP) which shows militants from its wings in Congo and Mozambique.
It is worth noting that in the latest issue of al-Naba weekly newsletter, the first after the announcement of the new leader, IS tried to downplay accusations of hiding and delaying the news of the death of its former leader, claims his successor was appointed the following day (February 4th), and that branches & media outfits rushed to pledge allegiance. It also attributes the delay to “matters on the battleground,” according to Mina Al Lami.
In the coming weeks or even months, there will likely be more militants pledging allegiance to the new leader of IS. Although the concealment of his identity is considered a challenge, the history of IS shows that it can use security as a very legitimate excuse and the caliph may never show his face. But attacks in his name will continue and perhaps increase in revenge for the killing of Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi and his spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Quraishi. ISWAP and ISKP are among the key branches of IS to monitor in the coming weeks.
The article was written with the information provided by so many great analysts including but not limited to @G88Daniele, @VincentFoucher, and @Natsecjeff