On 3 February 2022 US President Joe Biden announced the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). In an overnight raid led by US special forces, al-Qurayshi, along with members of his family including women and children, were killed when al-Qurayshi detonated a bomb during the operation. His demise is reminiscent of the October 2019, death of former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who also went out with a bang by detonating a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children.
From an ideological as well as propaganda perspective, self-inflicted death by these former IS leaders promotes the principles of martyrdom, the utmost sacrifice attainable in pursuit of IS’s goals. This concept was not lost on IS supporters who went onto various social media and messaging applications (apps) to gain news on al-Qurayshi’s death. Some exulted the concept of martyrdom by sharing quotes and dictates on its attainment, while many at first, denied Biden’s announcement along with mainstream media sources on al-Qurayshi’s demise, dubbing it ‘fake news’ by the kuffar (unbelievers). On 3 February 2022, as one user posted on Tech Haven, IS’s Rocket.Chat server platform:
“Instead of speculating kuffar Hollywood styled epic news- Lets make Dua (prayer/supplication). May Allah strengthen us and keep the brothers on all the fronts strong. May Khilafah (the Caliphate) spread to all corners of this earth, and may he sustain our leaders and keep them strong.”
When observing online IS supporter reactions to al-Qurayshi’s death, a handful of narrative reactions become apparent. These include 1) denial over al-Qurayshi’s death; 2) warnings to fellow supporters about believing non-IS news sources; 3) information sharing and seeking about the US special forces raid such as images of the compound and maps of the surrounding area; 4) sharing and refuting a picture claimed to be al-Qurayshi in death; 5) hostile remarks towards the kuffar; 6) warnings about the circulation of fake Al Furqan media foundation announcements; 7) hypothetical acceptance of the news, and as mentioned earlier; 8) thoughts and quotes on martyrdom. Although other reactions are possible, these are the prevalent narratives observed by the researchers of this Insight on the platforms Telegram, Rocket.Chat, Facebook, and Hoop Messenger during the period of 3 February 2022 to 9 February 2022.
Distrust in Mainstream Media
Distrust in mainstream news sources is commonly found among extremist communities online as well as with non-state actors. We have witnessed this from both jihadist and far-right actors, along with the general public. Events like the 2020 US presidential elections, COVID-19, and the spreading of mis/disinformation in the aftermath of terrorist attacks all aid in mobilising counternarrative, distrust, and conspiracy theories among online communities. When facts do not play in one’s favor, it is much easier to deny them by providing alternate facts more agreeable to your community. As research shows, identity, motivation, and ideology play a strong role in how we process information, especially when this information is personally threatening to your group. In the case of al-Qurayshi’s death, IS supporters find comfort and unity in its denial. For example, on 5 February 2022, a Telegram post declared that supporters should ignore and cease circulating messages from mainstream media sources reporting al-Qurayshi’s death, “The kufr media is propagating a lot of news about the killing of a major personality of the Caliphate. Don’t share any such news, nor pay attention to them…baqiyah wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding).”
On the other hand, when mainstream media headlines portray IS in a favorable light, IS supporters are happy to circulate news stories with titles like “ISIS Isn’t Back. It Never Went Away” thus, promoting their principles of “remaining and expanding” through non-IS media outputs.
In a more conspiratorial narrative vein, other messages after al-Quraysh’s death suggest that IS’s enemies were employing fake news announcements to dampen morale after the success of the Gweyran Prison break in January 2022. Once again, these messages were used to urge followers to only trust official IS media releases.
Information Sharing and Seeking about the US Special Forces Raid and Alleged Images of al-Qurayshi in Death
On 3 February 2022, in the aftermath of news reports about the raid and death of al-Qurayshi, images and maps of the compound and surrounding area were shared among IS supporters online. Many of these images and maps were accompanied by speculations about what had happened. Another image also began circulating, allegedly showing al-Qurayshi in death. IS supporters then began placing this image next to an image of al-Qurayshi alive, claiming that the dead man was not al-Qurayshi but instead a member of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). These claims may derive from the fact that the compound where al-Qurayshi was killed was located in Idlib province, an area controlled by HTS. In 2019, al-Baghdadi was also killed in a nearby town which Aaron Zelin argues, draws inquiry as to why two IS leaders were based in this region. Zelin further highlights the lack of HTS awareness on al-Qurayshi’s location and how this raises questions about HTS’s security service capabilities along with its capacity or deficiency to be a potential counterterrorism partner to the US.
Hostile Remarks Towards “Unbelievers”
Numerous posts expressed anger towards identified enemies – “the Crusader army” and what they termed as “al Jolani dogs” (meaning HTS). The assumption that HTS took part in coordinating the operation that killed al-Qurayshi speaks to the continuing animosity IS supporters hold for the group and how they view it as being in alliance with the anti-IS Coalition. Some content recycled older official IS propaganda such as an excerpt from an audio release by former IS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al Adnani, accompanied with the description message, “O America, do you think that you will achieve victory by killing one or more leaders?”
The recycling of content indicates how IS supporters exert great efforts to frame leadership decapitation as an insignificant inconvenience incapable of derailing their larger objectives. Instead, they seek to reframe the setback as confirmation that they are predestined for victory regardless of present setbacks.
Hypothetical and Conditional Acceptance of the News
Despite vehement denial of mainstream media announcements, some posts took the middle ground of the conditional hypothetical. Instead of fully accepting news of al-Qurayshi’s death, these posts strategically employed the terminologies “if” and “let us assume” in turn revealing their unwillingness to outright deny the reports while also attempting to avoid receiving ire from pro-IS communities for believing “the kuffar.”:
“Let us assume that the news is true, do you not know that all mankind has not seen and will not be afflicted by a calamity such as the death of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)…God promises victory to his soldiers. Will you forget that our Lord does not break his promise?” – Telegram, 5 February 2022.
By deploying a non-committal strategy, the conditional approach seeks to keep IS supporter spirits high by reminding them that the possible death of their Caliph is meaningless because God has promised them victory in what Mark Juergensmeyer terms the greater “Cosmic War” – a concept that “imagines the true confrontation behind worldly clashes to be on a transhistorical and metaphysical level.”
Quotes and Dictates on Martyrdom
Victory in the greater Cosmic War also reflects the concept of martyrdom which became a topical discussion over the demise of al-Qurayshi. A 3 February 2022 post on Rocket.Chat stated:
“If we assume true [sic] what the infidels say, then what is the problem with that!! Where is the problem if we receive news of the death of one of our leaders?! By God, they did not go out until they were immortalized in this world, but rather they went out seeking death as it happened. If the Commander of the Faithful was martyred, as the unbelievers say, then, by God, we will follow the covenant, and those after him will pledge allegiance to those after him…”
Similar sentiments were echoed by fellow supporters who, despite being in denial of al-Qurayshi’s death, praised the idea of martyrdom if it was obtained. As Toguslu notes, martyrdom provides figures “who facilitate revolutionary change for” IS and contextually represent “violent rupture” with regards to perceived injustices, tinged in religious dogma.
When considering online reactions by IS supporters to the death of al-Qurayshi, it becomes clear that online spaces provide IS supporters with virtual communities that offer encouragement, corroboration, and morale during times of uncertainty. When the news of al-Qurayshi’s death was released, many users flocked to various social media platforms seeking answers and community bonding. Bearing in mind that the ‘virtual caliphate’ is a decentralised media ecosystem composed of supporters across the globe along with official and unofficial media outlets, online spaces become even more important for community bonding and information seeking, particularly during times of crisis. In the early days of the pandemic, we witnessed this among IS supporters, their community engagement, and the pandemic narratives they produced. Thus, online spaces provide environments for IS supporters to build connections, establish unofficial propaganda outlets, and maintain virtual communities.
Understanding IS supporter reactions to the death of al-Qurayshi, to some extent, provides insight into how the online IS community sees itself both locally (in this case within their virtual communities) and outwardly (in the world at large). Tone and tenor are important indicators of the overall esprit de corps of a group. It is also important to note that in the days following the news of al-Qurayshi’s demise, IS supporters have become fairly quiet with regards to questioning and speculating about the former IS leader. As of the publishing of this article, there have been no official IS media announcements with respect to al-Qurayshi’s death leading one to believe that the group is biding its time to carefully craft a response that will maintain some semblance of authority.
The elimination of al-Qurayshi is a blow against the group but the sparse appearance habits of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the complete lack of any presence by al-Qurayshi serve as important reminders that IS leadership is not dependent on, as Zelin states, a “charismatic leader model.”