For nearly two decades, the man who came to be known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was a central figure in the terror juggernaut that became the Islamic State. From fighter, to prisoner, strategist to leader, there were not many parts of the insurgency in which the 46-year-old jihadist had not had a hand.
Born Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi in the northern Iraqi district of Mahalabiya, Qurayshi, who was killed by US special forces in Syria on Thursday, was to become one of the most committed proponents of some of its most savage acts. He played a lead role in the genocide of the Yazidis, which led to the killing of thousands of men killed and the enslavement of women and girls. He was deeply involved in the overthrow of Mosul in mid-2014, the success of which paralysed a region and the armies of two nation states. And he orchestrated mass killings of Shia civilians and members of the security forces.
Like many IS leaders, Qurayshi had served in Saddam Hussein’s military, where he became an officer and – by definition, a member of the Ba’ath party – an unusual port of call for someone described as ideological during his years at Mosul University, where he studied sharia law.
His path to the leadership of IS followed another familiar path – a spell in the US prison Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, where he met his predecessor as IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and others who would later propel him to the terror group’s most senior role.
Like the rest of the Bucca alumni, Qurayshi honed his skills in the back rooms of Iraq’s towns and cities on his release. They eventually served as a breeding ground for an insurrection that was without precedent in modern history. By the time Mosul fell, he had risen to be one of Baghdadi’s most trusted advisers, along with a handful of other seasoned hands who helped shape the course of the conflict in both Iraq and Syria.
Yet for such an instrumental insurgent, little was known about him. When IS announced Qurayshi as a replacement for Baghdadi when he too was killed by US special forces, the name was not known to western intelligence agencies. It took several months for them to link the nom de guerre to al-Salbi. Nevertheless, the new name stuck and for the last two years he had been one of the most wanted men in the world.
Qurayshi was thought to have initially been hiding near Mosul, familiar terrain to a man from the area, but by Christmas it became clear that he was instead in Syria, where other senior IS members – including Baghdadi – had sought sanctuary. His death comes close to ending the old guard, who caused so much destruction. While he remained a relative unknown throughout his two years as leader, the next cadre of IS leaders, who were much lower ranked during the early years, are now stepping into the breach with much less known about them.
Qurayshi’s legacy could well end up being who he was able to groom to replace him.