BEIRUT (AP) — The Islamic State group confirmed for the first time on Thursday that its leader was killed in a U.S. strike in northwestern Syria last month and named his successor.
It was the first official comment from the militant group about its leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi since U.S. officials said he blew himself up along with members of his family as American forces raided his hideout in the northwestern Syrian town of Atmeh, near the border with Turkey, on Feb. 3.
In an audio message released Thursday, IS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajer confirmed the death of the leader, as well as that of the group’s former spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, in the raid.
Al-Muhajer also said that IS has named a successor to the former leader, identifying him as Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi and saying the late IS chief has chosen him as the next caliph.
There was no immediate information about the new leader and it wasn’t known whether he is Iraqi like his two predecessors, both killed in rebel-held parts of Syria.
Last month’s U.S. strike was the second time in three years that the United States took out the top IS leader.
None of the al-Qurayshis are believed to be related. Al-Qurayshi is not their real name but comes from Quraish, the name of the tribe that Islam’s Prophet Muhammad belonged to. IS claims its leaders hail from this tribe and “al-Qurayshi” serves as part of an IS leader’s nom de guerre.
“He has accepted the leadership,” al-Muhajer said of the new IS chief, without providing his real name.
In the U.S. raid, about 50 U.S. special operations forces landed in helicopters and attacked a house in a rebel-held corner of Syria, clashing for two hours with gunmen. In all, 13 people were killed, including six children and four women. Residents described continuous gunfire and explosions that jolted Atmeh near the Turkish border, an area dotted with camps for internally displaced from Syria’s civil war.
At the height of its power, after declaring an Islamic caliphate in 2014, IS controlled a third of both Syria and Iraq and ruled over 8 million people.
Since their defeat in 2019, the militants have struggled to mount a resurgence, staging deadly attacks in both Syria and Iraq. In January, IS launched a complex assault on a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 IS detainees and setting off 10 days of clashes with U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish-led fighters. The battles killed more than 120 Syrian Kurdish fighters and prison workers, along with 374 militants.