Reports Hint at Ex-Iraqi Army Officer Abdullah Qardash Taking over Islamic State

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. The death toll in Gaza hit 265 as Israel pressed a ground offensive on the 11th day of …
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images, File

The Islamic State press agency Amaq claimed in August that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had appointed Abdullah “The Professor” Qardash, a veteran of the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein, as his heir apparent — a report developing major significance following al-Baghdadi’s demise on Sunday.

The UK Daily Mail on Sunday noted two other Islamic State leadership candidates have been named by outside observers, but Qardash is allegedly being touted by Amaq as the heir apparent:

Qardash – also known as Hajji Abdullah al-Afari – was born in Tal Afar, a Sunni-majority town in Iraq – before joining the military while Saddam Hussein ruled the country.

Following the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003 and President Bush’s move to disband the country’s military, he found himself locked in jail accused of having links to al-Qaeda.

Languishing in a cell at Camp Bucca, Qardash formed a close bond with Baghdadi, who was then fomenting the extremist religious code that would provide the ideological grounding for the death cult that became ISIS.

After his release Qardash served as a religious commissar and a general sharia judge for al-Qaeda, according to researchers at the S. Rajartnam School of International Studies in Singapore. 

When ISIS emerged as a splinter group from Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch he changed allegiances, where he became Baghdadi’s enforcer.

Qardash reportedly developed a reputation as a strict enforcer of the Islamic State’s brand of sharia (Muslim law) and a sense of brutal legislative devotion, earning him the nickname “Professor.” He holds a degree in “Islamic sciences” from a university in Mosul. He is also known as “The Destroyer” for his brutal treatment of Baghdadi’s internal adversaries.

Amaq reported in August that Baghdadi, who was thought to be in failing health, had named Qardash as his successor and transferred some operational control of the Islamic State’s remnants to him. 

In addition to his military background and credentials in Islamic law, Qardash is said to be descended from the Quraysh tribe — in other words, part of the extended family of Islam’s founder Mohammed. Baghdadi’s claim to such lineage was an important part of his perceived legitimacy as the “caliph” of the Islamic State.

All claims of succession are dubious at best, with ISIS fragmented after the fall of its “caliphate” and thrown into chaos by the craven demise of its leader. Competing factions may well use Amaq and other ISIS media organs to position themselves for claims of leadership. 

Many of the top candidates for Baghdadi’s position will find themselves wondering if they are already in the sights of the United States and its allies. According to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), top Islamic State spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir was killed in a joint operation with the U.S. military shortly after Baghdadi’s death.

As with al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden, counterterrorism experts expect ISIS to adapt to the loss of its leader and continue as a diffuse terrorist threat, even though its grandiose ambitions to maintain a “caliphate” have been rather severely set back.

A crucial difference is that al-Qaeda had already adapted itself to run at a slower, more careful speed before bin Laden’s death. Dissatisfaction with that lower profile and more deliberate amassing of influence was one of the reasons ISIS split from al-Qaeda. Experts disagree about how much of the Islamic State’s appeal was tied into its possession of territory, the tremendous amount of money it looted from captured populations and oil resources, and Baghdadi’s cachet as a uniquely legitimate “caliph.”

One interesting hitch for the Islamic State’s effort to transfer leadership is that allied terrorist organizations in other countries pledged personal fealty to Baghdadi in a ritual called bayat, rather than joining ISIS in the manner of a corporate merger. With ISIS already a shadow of its former self, some of those allies might not be eager to transfer their loyalty to a new leader, especially if multiple feuding candidates present themselves for the position.

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