Caliph Abu Unknown: Succession and Legitimacy in the Islamic State


Three days after the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State released a short message featuring its newly appointed spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, announcing the new “emir of the Muslims” as Caliph Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. Few outside of the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee and, purportedly, President Donald Trump, know the real identities behind these kunyas (noms de guerre). The movement that captivated, shocked, raped, and murdered its way to the leadership of the global jihadist movement just nominated an anonymous “caliph” to lead the enterprise, expecting members and supporters around the globe to renew their allegiance.

The Islamic State’s leaders are confident the gambit will succeed because the replacement caliph was selected using a process first executed in 2006, and subsequently repeated in 2010 and again this year. These leadership transitions were successful in allowing the movement to survive external leader targeting, and the resulting precedence imbues a sense of legitimacy for the new caliph. The nuance of this is missed by outsiders, but not by dissenters and rivals in the jihadist community. As Cole Bunzel’s excellent analysis highlights, dissenters from the movement have mocked Abu Ibrahim as “an unknown nobody” and dismissed the jurisprudence of his succession as fraudulent. Yet, in less than a month, Abu Ibrahim has received over two dozen leader-specific pledges from around the world. This suggests that the Islamic State’s supporters will, once again, recognize an unknown as the divinely appointed guide not just to their movement, but — in their eyes — the world’s Muslims.



In order to understand what is unfolding today, we need to review the Islamic State’s past transitions, tease out the logic that informs how new leaders are chosen, and discover what practices it replicates from succession to succession. The Islamic State facilitates a transfer of legitimacy from the old leader to the new, protects the identity of the leader for as long as it can, and begins the posthumous elevation of deceased leaders into the movement’s folklore. There are risks and opportunities created by these parallel processes — and not just for the new leader.

A Man with No Name, Again

The authority of the Islamic State’s most senior leader is based on a fusion of Weber’s concepts of legal-rational (i.e. adherence to “law” or a legally enshrined process) and traditional (i.e. established order/custom) criteria. Accordingly, the selection of a new leader is rooted in the satisfaction of both a legal-rational process, for example a shura council deliberation, and traditional criteria, such as the leader’s Qurayshi lineage. The Islamic State’s presentation of its new caliph tries to address both sets of criteria, despite there being a lack of precedents in historical caliphates for an anonymous leader. Nonetheless, the Islamic State sees a benefit in presenting unknown leaders to supporters in order to protect their identity and facilitate a fresh start for them. It is an approach the group has honed for well-over a decade.

Throughout its history there have been three leadership transitions for the Islamic State’s top role. The first was from the movement’s charismatic founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to the first emir of the Islamic State of Iraq — Abu Umar al-Baghdadi — in 2006. When Abu Umar was killed in 2010 by a joint Iraqi-U.S. special operation, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was announced as the emir who would later, in 2014, become caliph. Third, and most recently, al-Baghdadi was replaced as caliph by Abu Ibrahim. There are noteworthy similarities between each installation.

All three announcements described the replacements as scholars of jurisprudence and therefore equipped to guide the movement legally and spiritually. In addition to being trained or self-taught scholars, all were veterans of the fight against the occupier and the “apostate” local regimes, thus knowledgeable warriors and capable of leading the jihad. Unlike Zarqawi, who never lived to see the establishment of an “Islamic State” in Iraq, each of the three more recent leaders was proclaimed “commander of the faithful,” a term reserved for Islamic political leaders of proto-states with an expansive claim to the allegiance of a global ummah (community). All three claimed Quraysh tribal lineage in their kunyas tying them to the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe and satisfying an important criterion for the role. This requirement for the political leader to have a credible claim to the Qurashi title was stipulated in the Islamic State of Iraq’s Shari’a Council document from early 2007 titled Informing Mankind of the Birth of the Islamic State. Not incidentally, this text was found among Abu Bakr’s possessions in one of his last hideouts in Iraq.

In a twist with strong resonance today, all three adopted new kunyas that purposely obscured their identity. While this practice has led to confusion within the rank and file about its leaders at times, it has helpfully encouraged misunderstandings by its enemies at times during these critical leadership shifts. For example, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi was such an unknown figure, that when he was announced as the first emir of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 the U.S. military publicly suggested he did not exist, an idea fed by the prison interrogation of its media emir. This embarrassing analysis was debunked a year later by a local Iraqi police chief who discovered Abu Umar’s real identity, Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al-Zawi, after interrogations of local Islamic State members in 2008 — most likely his relations in Haditha. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was equally unknown, having changed his kunya from Abu Du’a in 2010. While his grace period was much shorter thanks to his true identity being revealed within a year, al-Baghdadi chose to keep a low profile, despite the pointed criticism of online supporters. He failed to make any leadership statements for an entire year, took two years before releasing an audiotaped speech, and four years before appearing on camera. Despite this careful start, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was able to lead his organization from its nadir in 2010 to governing large parts of Iraq and Syria by 2014. What the group learned from this was the importance of keeping its leader alive during low points, and that emphasizing the legitimacy of the position over a personality was key to transferring legitimacy from one emir to the next.

The New Caliph

Abu Hamza’s announcement confirming Abu Bakr’s death and the selection of Abu Ibrahim as the new caliph offers hints that, from the Islamic State’s perspective, leadership succession may be more important than territorial control for projecting legitimacy. In the speech’s prelude, the flagship news outlet al-Furqan introduced Islamic State’s new spokesman as “the muhajir (immigrant, traveler to the Islamic State) Sheikh Abu Hamzah al-Qurashi,” suggesting that he is not Iraqi or Syrian. In the statement, Abu Hamzah described a process of leadership selection that, while mirroring the precedence the Islamic State had established for itself, was projected as being rooted in centuries of Islamic practice. Curiously, the statement reveals that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi played a role in choosing his replacement, something that has not been mentioned in previous transitions but might have been mentioned to add legitimacy to Abu Ibrahim.

According to the announcement, Abu Ibrahim claims lineage from the Prophet Mohammad’s clan (Hashim) within the larger tribe (Quraysh), has combat experience against U.S. forces (presumably in Iraq) and is a religious scholar (alim min al’ulama). While this may seem like scant information, these three traits are telling in that they “confirm” that he has the appropriate lineage and is a “warrior-scholar,” the most revered of jihadist leaders, as evidenced in this excerpt:

So oh Muslims in every place, rush to pledge allegiance to the emir al-Mu’mineen and gather around him, for he by God is one of the symbols of the jihad, and one of its ‘ulama, and one of the emirs of war. He has precedence in supporting God’s religion, fighting the Exalted’s enemies. The fields of the tumult and places of men bear witness for him, for he fought against the protector of the Cross- America- and inflicted on it woes upon woes. So he is aware of its method of war and realizes its scheming deception.

In projecting an image of its new leader as a warrior-scholar, with lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, and chosen via an established leadership succession process, the Islamic State’s message to its supporters is essentially that the position is more important than the man so long as the man satisfies the requirements of the position. As Islamic State’s deceased spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared in his first speech in 2011: “Jihad is not affected by the death of its leaders; however, it renews itself and keeps growing.” This process of renewal not only occurs via succession to a new leader but the posthumous elevation of old leaders.

The Islamic State’s propagandists have already sought to posthumously project Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi into the ranks of the most iconic jihadists. A recent article in Al Naba (November 7, 2019) described him in this way:

The Emir of the Believers, the Mujahid Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may Allah accept him, has departed to his Lord…the end of his life would be like that of those who preceded him from the imams of religion and the emirs of jihad: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, and Usama bin Laden… who preferred to be killed for the cause of Allah than to surrender to the polytheists.

The Islamic State’s propagandists will be keen to slowly build al-Baghdadi’s posthumous charisma, something he never had in life, with narratives of his exploits as a warrior-scholar caliph. Just as Abu Ibrahim emerged to become Islamic State’s new caliph, in death al-Baghdadi ascends to Islamic State (and to some extent the larger jihadi) mythos as the latest in a chain of impactful leaders.

The Cycle Continues

For the Islamic State, leadership succession is a crucial mechanism for replacing politico-religious leaders and projecting the credibility and authority that is central to out-competing its jihadist rivals. The Islamic State movement has experienced several booms and busts since its formation, and each of these periods saw leaders navigate the shoals of defeat and achieve unrealized goals. Abu Ibrahim takes over at yet another nadir, and faces internal divisions, immense counter-terrorism pressure by the coalition, and the difficulty in developing his own leadership brand in an era of the globally dispersed “archipelagic” caliphate.

Unlike his predecessors, Abu Ibrahim will be forced to navigate an array of formal and aspirant affiliates around the world as the global guerrilla caliph. Maintaining the coherence and resilience of this international effort may see new allegiances being formed while others wither. In the weeks after the announcement of the new caliph, Aaron Zelin’s Jihadology website has captured pledges from over two dozen provinces and groups from across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. This is also an opportunity for the Islamic State’s formal and aspiring provinces to reset their relationship with the new caliph in different ways. For many, this may involve trying to seek his favor and attention through a mix of propaganda and action that could drive greater volatility and violence in various theatres around the world.

As journalist Murtaza Hussain recently wrote about the death of al-Baghdadi, “the muted response to the death of Baghdadi should give a hint to the level of public fatigue after nearly two decades of fighting, even among Americans who have generally not lived through the violence directly. People are deeply weary. But weariness alone does not end wars.” The Islamic State appointed an unknown to be its caliph but we have learned that these semi-anonymous figures eventually morph into true icons of terror: from the street thug Zarqawi, “Sheikh of the Slaughterers” who killed on camera, to Abu Umar who directed a horrific suicide bombing campaign against Shi’a pilgrims, to Abu Bakr and his reintroduction of slavery, systematic rape, and mass slaughter. Rest assured that, given the chance, Abu Ibrahim will unleash horrors that will at least match those of his predecessors.



Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Craig Whiteside is an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College resident program at the Naval Postgraduate School and a Program on Extremism Fellow.

Both are fellows with the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague (ICCT) and are co-authors of The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement (Hurst/Oxford University Press) with Charlie Winter.

Disclaimer: These views belong to the authors and do not reflect the views of either the Program on Extremism or the U.S. Navy.

Image: Department of Defense