May 12, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Leadership Shift

• Last Friday, Abu Ala’a al-Afri, the possible replacement for the allegedly wounded Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, gave a speech at the same Mosul mosque where Baghdadi made his triumphant proclamation of the caliphate last summer

• Al-Afri’s speech appeared to be aimed at calming supporters whose fortunes have turned since the heady days of last summer

• To change the dynamic, the Islamic State might press to disrupt Western societies through relentless Twitter threats and warnings, forcing reactions even in the absence of a preceding action

• If al-Afri does replace Baghdadi, he might seek to announce his reign with renewed offensives where possible and with increased calls for lone wolf attacks in the West, while perhaps reducing friction with other extremist groups.


While the true health and functionality of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, remains uncertain and prone to conjecture, his deputy did give a rather high-profile Friday prayer speech in Mosul last week, furthering speculation that Baghdadi is, at the very least, indisposed. Abu Ala’a al-Afri aka Abdul Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, a longtime senior commander of not just the Islamic State but also of its precursor group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), told followers that “the coming days are difficult” without making mention of the missing Baghdadi. If he does assume functional control of the world’s most infamous terrorist group, he might make fresh changes in a group never shy about changing tactics while maintaining a steady strategy.

Al-Afri, an ethnic Turkmen, is an interesting figure—a symbol of the unintended cause and effect of both the Iraq invasion but also the Syrian civil war. Allegedly a physics teacher from Mosul, he joined AQI early on in 2004, suggesting a quick radicalization as an associate of AQI founder Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Afri was arrested in Syria, a not too uncommon occurrence when jihadists used the country as a staging ground to fight in neighboring Iraq. Released in 2012, al-Afri quickly resumed a senior position in the Islamic State, and was always referred to as a charismatic commander, suggesting some level of military capability.

If he does succeed Baghdadi, or assumes more than ad hoc operational control, it might signal a shift in a group already known for ably adapting to changes on the ground. The group al-Afri addressed in Mosul last Friday is not the same group that Baghdadi addressed in his message from the ‘caliph' last July. The gains of last summer have given way to stalemate and attrition, with much worse to come. However, the ground pressure, even if it is Iraqi-led in nature, is unlikely to change the conditions that gave rise to the group in the first place. Such sweeping economic, sectarian, and societal changes are beyond the scope of airstrikes and Shi’a militias. Al-Afri or another leader will still lead a group with a huge following given the deep divisions in current Iraq.

If al-Afri does change the modus operandi of the group, or at the least intensify the parts of its strategy that work the best, such as prison breaks and assassinations, it will present a wrinkle in the counterterrorism (CT) efforts designed to contain the group. Current anti-Islamic State CT tactics have proved effective at keeping the group off balance but still in control. Al-Afri’s speech last Friday in Mosul coincided with an outbreak of an Islamic State Twitter offensive warning of attacks in London and even against specific civilian air flights such as one originating from the United Arab Emirates. It is through Twitter threats that the group can keep its far enemies reactive and scared while it tries to deal with the worsening ground reality in Mosul and, one day, Raqqa. The group knows it can dictate the terms of the battle as it is perceived on social media, even as it loses the actual battle on the ground.

The coming weeks and months of dealing with the Islamic State and the conditions that gave cause to its rise will do a great deal in determining the next ten years of recovery. The Islamic State might take on a more Turkmen identity given al-Afri’s possible rise, and seek to encourage the global jihadist nature over the Iraq-focused fight. This would be a change from the Iraq-centric senior leadership of the last few years. These possibilities are uncertain but what is certain is that the group will change and so must the fight against it.


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