Back-to-back U.S. operations Saturday and Sunday have resulted in the deaths of Islamic State militant group (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and spokesperson Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir in Syria, but the organization has already designated a successor, Newsweek has learned.
Abdullah Qardash, sometimes spelled Karshesh and also known as Hajji Abdullah al-Afari, was said to have been nominated by Baghdadi in August to run the group’s “Muslim affairs” in a widely-circulated statement attributed to ISIS’ official Amaq news outlet, but never publicly endorsed by the group. Though little is known about the former Iraqi military officer who once served under late leader Saddam Hussein, one regional intelligence official asking not to be identified by name or nation told Newsweek that Qardash would have taken over Baghdadi’s role—though it had lost much of its significance by the time of his demise.
Baghdadi, who died after detonating a suicide vest following a Delta Team operation first reported by Newsweek, built ISIS’ self-styled caliphate out of Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, but the official said that the influential hard-line cleric’s role had become largely symbolic.
“Baghdadi was a figurehead. He was not involved in operations or day-to-day,” the official told Newsweek. “All Baghdadi did was say yes or no—no planning.”
Details are still emerging as to what transpired at Baghdadi’s compound in Barisha village and why the ISIS chief was hiding out deep in territory more commonly associated with rival jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by former Baghdadi associate Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who went on to built Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, Nusra Front. Both men’s forces, however, have faced consecutive defeats, severely limiting their freedom of movement across two nations they played key roles in destabilizing.
The pair had taken advantage of the unrest resulting from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that overthrew Hussein to establish a powerful militant network. Jolani ultimately refused to merge his Syrian group with Baghdadi’s as the latter spread there, capitalizing on a civil war that erupted in 2011 as the U.S., Turkey and other regional powers backed a rebel and jihadi uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As ISIS came to dominate both in Iraq and Syria, however, the U.S. gathered an international coalition in 2014 to begin bombing the group in both countries. Iran also mobilized its own forces, along with allied regional militias, to back the Iraqi and Syrian governments against militant advances.