Operation against Qurayshi a good PR exercise for Biden - GulfToday

Operation against Qurayshi a good PR exercise for Biden

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby conducts a news briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. AFP

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby conducts a news briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Agence France-Presse

US President Joe Biden hailed the demise of Daesh leader Abu Ibrahim Al Qurayshi during a US commando raid in Syria’s north-western Idlib province as a major victory in the campaign against the global movement. To escape arrest, Biden claimed, Qurayshi had blown up himself and members of his family in “a desperate act of cowardice.” His predecessor, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, killed himself by detonating an explosive vest during another raid in Idlib by a US team in October 2019. Both men had good reason to choose death over capture.

The two Iraqis joined Al Qaeda in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion and occupation, were arrested and subjected to abuse at the violent US Camp Bocca prison where they also trained and formed relationships with men who, after their release, dominated the movement’s offshoots.

What Biden did not say was more important than the words he used to describe Qurayshi and the raid. Biden did not mention that he was a prisoner in a rented flat on the third floor of a cement-block building in the small town of Atmeh near the Turkish border. Few people knew Qurayshi was residing there although he, reportedly, went on the roof to pray occasionally, and issued instructions through couriers who appeared from time to time.

The flat was rented by Qurayshi’s loyal lieutenant, a Syrian, who lived with his wife and children on the second floor, worked nearby as an auto mechanic, and did the shopping for both households. He and his wife resisted the US attack on the building and were also killed. The women and children living on the ground floor were evacuated by the commandos.

Qurayshi was, as they say, a “sitting duck,” particularly since the US had put a $10 million price on his head for information on his whereabouts. He and Baghdadi chose to hide out in Idlib because it is an unsettled province without an effective government and hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. However, the dominant faction in Idlib is Daesh’s rival, Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham, which enjoys the protection of Turkey, an enemy of Daesh, and seeks Western acceptance and recognition. By taking refuge in Idlib, Baghdadi and Qurayshi faced enemies.

They did not, however, adopt the same approach to the job. Charismatic Baghdadi recorded pronouncements and employed social media to get out Daesh’s message. The two videos he made of himself were landmarks in the story of Daesh. In the first he proclaimed the establishment of the false caliphate after Daesh captured Mosul in northern Iraq in mid-2014 and the second was in April 2019 to rally his troops after the battle of Baghouz when Daesh lost its last pocket of territory.

Qurayshi was silent, absent, and dubbed “the ghost.” Since he had only indirect contact with “emirs” in the field, it was unlikely that, as the US claimed, Qurayshi drew up a detailed plan for the ten-day Daesh assault on the Kurdish prison in Hasakeh aimed at freeing thousands of Daesh prisoners. This appeared to be modelled on an earlier Daesh attack on a Tahrir Al Sham prison in Idlib which liberated scores of prisoners who promptly returned to Daesh ranks.

While Biden stated that the raid wiped out the head of the movement, neither Qurayshi nor Baghdadi have in recent years served as active Daesh “caliphs” and “commanders-of-the-faithful.” Since the fall of the false caliphate between 2017 and 2019, Syrian and Iraqi Daesh units have been largely autonomous while Daesh-central has never had much influence in far-flung franchises which have always operated independently after swearing fealty to the radical movement.

During 2013-14, Daesh commanders must have believed they had the blessing of the Almighty and enjoyed impunity because of military successes which gave them control over 25 per cent of Syria despite the brutal regime imposed on Raqqa, Daesh’s capital. It became a city returned to the dark ages and dominated by fear. Members of the city’s small Alawite community and supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were executed and Shia mosques and Christian churches were destroyed. Christians fled the city. Dissidents were expelled or slain by hanging and decapitation.

Daesh monitored mobile phones and the internet and banned television and radio. Men were required to attend daily prayers in mosques. Smoking was punished by fines and imprisonment.

Thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, and foreign fighters flooded into the city, took over the properties of refugees and intimidated and terrorised Syrians who dared to stay on in order to retain their homes and farms. Daesh exported its ideology and harsh practices to its franchises in Asia, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

By contrast, Raqqa was the Abbasid empire’s summer capital between 796 and 809 under Caliph Haroun Al Rashid during the Golden Age of Islam when Baghdad flourished as a centre of trade, learning, tolerance and culture and reigned over a vast empire.

Having backed opponents of the Syrian government, the Obama administration ignored the conquest of Raqqa, and took action in 2014 only after Daesh swept into Iraq and conquered Mosul, its second city and an oil hub. During and after the US campaign to liberate Mosul and Raqqa, a number of second level Daesh leaders were killed by drone strikes.

High profile commando operations were reserved by Donald Trump and Biden for the two “caliphs” Baghdadi and Qurayshi. The successes of these operations were good public relations for presidents with flagging approval ratings. These operations and the carefully orchestrated publicity connected with them were modelled on ex-President Barack Obama’s 2011 raid on the home in Pakistan of Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden who personified the movement he founded.

Unlike al-Qaeda, Daesh has always focused on its utopian goal of creating a “state,” called a “caliphate,” rather than allegiance to a leader. This is why, Daesh promptly chose a new caliph when Baghdadi was killed and is likely to do so now that Qurayshi is dead. The Daesh motto appears to be, “The king is dead, long live the king.” Daesh loyalists continue to fight with the aim of restoring their state not because of an attachment to one leader or another.

Like his predecessors, Biden does not seem to have recognised this crucial fact and could continue attacks on Daesh leaders in the expectation that he will finish off Daesh.

To achieve this end the US and its Western allies need to tackle the reasons why young men and women still join Daesh: alienation due to unemployment, poverty, corrupt governments, and no hope in the future. A tragic example of the drawing power of Daesh is the recruitment since December of dozens of Lebanese youths from the port city of Tripoli where poverty has reached 90 per cent. At least four have been killed in clashes in Iraq.

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