A former physics teacher from Mosul has been installed as a new temporary leader for the Islamic State after the terror group’s leader was reportedly injured in an airstrike in March, an Iraqi government adviser told Newsweek.
Newsweek describes Abu Alaa Afri as a “rising star” within Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), and the Iraqi government adviser, Hisham al Hashimi, said Afri had become even more important than the injured “caliph” of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“More important, and smarter, and with better relationships. He is a good public speaker and strong charisma,” Hashimi told Newsweek. “All the leaders of Daesh find that he has much jihadi wisdom, and good capability at leadership and administration.”
Afri will become ISIS’ new permanent leader if Baghdadi dies, Hashimi said. He is reportedly a follower of Abu Musaab al-Suri, a prominent jihadi scholar, and used to teach physics in the northwestern Iraqi city of Tal Afar.
Having a caliph with a background of religious education is important to ISIS, which has shaped its self-proclaimed caliphate around a strict interpretation of sharia law. The group recruits people to come live in its territory by marketing it as an Islamic utopia.
Der Spiegel reported recently that early leaders of ISIS, many of whom are former Iraqi intelligence officers from ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, decided to make Baghdadi caliph because he, as an “educated cleric,” would “give the group a religious face.”
Afri reportedly became Baghdadi’s right-hand man after Baghdadi took a step back from decision-making for security reasons, Newsweek reports. He has served as a link between ISIS’ top leaders and its lower ranks and helps with coordination between the upper ranks and the emirs in different regional provinces.
Osama bin Laden reportedly tapped Afri to run Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’ predecessor, after the death of senior officials in 2010, according to Newsweek. Afri became a senior member of the group and was known to be “very strict,” Hashimi said.
Newsweek reports that Afri is thought to desire reconciliation with Al Qaeda and its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as Nusra Front, a chief rival of ISIS in Syria.
ISIS used to be aligned with Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda leadership denounced ISIS after the group defied its directives and continued releasing brutal propaganda. The two terror groups have been competing for territory in Syria since then, and Western airstrikes targeting ISIS in Syria have hurt that group while allowing Nusra to rise, the Associated Press reported last month.
And Nusra has faced pressure from its members to reconcile with ISIS so the two groups can join together to fight a common enemy: the West.
The Pentagon reported earlier this month that ISIS had since August lost thousands of miles of territory it once controlled, though nearly all of that lost territory is in Iraq, not Syria.
Afri also reportedly wants ISIS leadership to be made up half of Arabs and half of foreign fighters, which is a departure from its current structure.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that nearly all of ISIS’ leaders were former Iraqi officers, not foreign fighters. The foreign fighters have proved valuable for ISIS’ media strategy — the group used the now-infamous “Jihadi John,” a British extremist, in some of its beheading videos to gain more attention from the West — but seem to have so far been kept out of the upper echelons of leadership.
ISIS’ leaders operate largely in the shadows. Since rising to power as the leader of ISIS, Baghdadi has rarely appeared on video, and few photos of him have been released.
The Pentagon has denied reports of Baghdadi’s injury. US defense officials told The Daily Beast that the airstrike that reportedly wounded him was not aimed at a high-value target and that they “have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi.”
Martin Chulov at The Guardian reported that the strike targeted multiple cars in the town of Baaj in northwestern Iraq and that officials didn’t know that Baghdadi was in one of the cars.
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