Analysts of Islamic State and jihadism in general are sometimes accused of unnecessarily amplifying the messages of jihadist groups. The criticism in my view is not entirely invalid. For example, I see no reason why analysts should be promoting on Twitter the early announcement of a forthcoming release by the Islamic State's al-Furqan Foundation (which these days normally takes the form of a speech by the official spokesman of the group).
Equally though, the jihadist groups also display a very keen interest in what these analysts say about them, and the rumours and claims they circulate. In the Islamic State's case, its media cadres must have noticed the recent rumours that circulated claiming the arrest of the group's leader (the 'caliph' Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi) in Turkey. It has been claimed, per reports that go back to the analyst Hassan Hassan, that Abu al-Hasan is an individual called Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaida'ie, who served in administrative positions in the organisation. It would appear that the Turks arrested Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaida'ie inside Turkey, and while Turkish reports mention that there is a claim that he is the 'caliph', this claimed identification is not being definitively asserted by the Turkish authorities. For my part, I am very skeptical that this individual is Abu al-Hasan, as it is unlikely the leader of Islamic State would base himself in Turkey. Further, if he were the caliph, I would expect a definitive assertion of this identification by the Turkish authorities.
The speech of the Islamic State spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir released by the al-Furqan Foundation, and the editorial in the Islamic State's al-Naba' newsletter discussing the speech, only solidify my doubts of this identity. While I expected that the speech might address the rumours of the arrest of the 'caliph' in some detail, the 'caliph' himself was mentioned no more in passing as the spokesman called for allegiance to be given to him, and the speech focused on repeated talking points and some of the more recent developments: for example, commending prison breaks conducted by Islamic State fighters in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in keeping with the Islamic State's rhetorical commitment to free prisoners. This would suggest to me that the 'caliph' is still in a capacity to exercise his duties, and that the rumours of his arrest via the identification of Abu al-Hasan with Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaida'ie are deemed so trivial and flimsy as not to be dealt with at length.
The editorial of the al-Naba' newsletter takes up these points further, criticising "analysts" for supposedly engaging in lying and seeking to prove their hopes rather than seek the truth with evidence. The article explicitly mentions in passing the rumour of the supposed arrest of the 'caliph' and mocks "analysts" for expecting that the Islamic State media should somehow always be expected to respond to every falsehood and rumour, when the media discourse is more preoccupied with guiding the believers on the right direction in one front of a war consisting of two interconnected fronts: the field front and the media front. Again then, the notion that Abu al-Hasan is Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaida'ie is implicitly deemed silly and not worth engaging with. In addition, it should be noted that the editorial says "may God Almighty protect him" after mentioning the 'caliph', suggesting he is alive and well and still performing his duties (whereas if he were captured, it would be reasonable to expect the article to say "may God free him" or a similar formulation).
While I am very doubtful of the identification of Abu al-Hasan with Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaida'ie, I do not know what to make of an alternative account claiming Abu al-Hasan is the brother of former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in 2019. In truth, I cannot claim to know or have good information of my own as to who Abu al-Hasan is, nor can the community of analysts at large. Indeed, it would also seem that intelligence agencies do not have a clear consensus on Abu al-Hasan's identity, even though they likely have a lot more knowledge of the inner workings of the organisation because of capture of documents, electronic records and the like.
The fact is that the Islamic State is a clandestine organisation, and with its loss of territories in the core of Iraq and Syria and the killing and capture of many if not most of the original leaders who brought the group to its height of success in 2014-2015, we now have much less opportunity to obtain information on the day-to-day functioning of the group and the identity of its current leaders.
The lesson then, is for analysts to exercise caution and simply acknowledge the uncertainty here. Perhaps at some point Abu al-Hasan will be clearly identified, but right now the best advice is to be patient with the demand for information and simply profess the limits of what we can know.
Below is the editorial translated in full.
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