On November 30, 2022, the Islamic State's spokesman Abu 'Umar al-Muhajir made the somewhat surprising announcement that the group's "caliph" and leader Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi had been killed, while adding that the group's Shura council had agreed on a successor going by the name of Abu al-Hussayn al-Hussayni al-Qurashi.1 Unlike the case with Abu al-Hasan's two "caliph" predecessors (Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), this time there had been no prior claim by the U.S.-led coalition or any other entity to have killed Abu al-Hasan. Indeed, the statement gave no information as to the date of his death or the circumstances of it apart from claiming that it was a violent death that occurred while he was fighting "the enemies of God."
Within hours of the Islamic State announcement, however, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement giving more precise information on the incident, saying that Abu al-Hasan had been killed in "mid-October" by "the Free Syrian Army in Dar'a [Dera'a] province in [southern] Syria."2 A comparison of this announcement with open-source data suggests that the most likely scenario is that Abu al-Hasan was killed in clashes between Islamic State cells and local militiamen from the town of Jasim in the northern countryside of Dera'a province in mid-October 2022. It seems plausible that the United States had intelligence on this matter but decided to refrain from any announcement until receiving full confirmation via a statement from the Islamic State itself. In addition, the confirmation of the killing and the CENTCOM statement showed that a previous theory that had identified Abu al-Hasan with one Bashar al-Sumaida'i—a former senior member of the Islamic State currently detained in Turkey3—could not have been correct.4
While the circumstances of Abu al-Hasan's death deserve more detailed analysis, the fact that he was in Dera'a—an area formally under the control of the Syrian government—was itself notable, as Abu al-Hasan's two predecessors had both been killed in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib within areas controlled by the former Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and allied insurgent groups. Theoretically at least, those parts of Idlib should provide the least bad option for hiding places for the Islamic State's leader among all possibilities in Iraq and Syria, considering that those regions have no active ground presence of personnel of the U.S.-led coalition conducting missions against the group, and that there are large waves of displaced people living under a system of governance that has still not managed to implement a comprehensive ID system or administration.
Yet it is also true that the Islamic State presence in Dera'a is not a new development but has rather existed for many years. The death of Abu al-Hasan and its aftermath provide an opportunity to revisit the history of the Islamic State in Dera'a and examine the current situation of the group there. This article does just that, offering an understanding of the group's past in this province of Syria that helps to explain the current state of play for the Islamic State in the country as a whole.
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