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Death of ISIS chief raises more questions than it answers

By Tamara Qiblawi and Eoin McSweeney, CNN

The so-called caliphate has lost its leader again. On the surface, the US commando raid in Syria that left ISIS chief Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi dead may look like a game-changer, but experts warn the resurgence of the group is likely to press on undeterred.

“Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” declared US President Joe Biden, hours after the end of the operation that targeted Qurayshi in the Syrian rebel enclave of Idlib.

Biden may have hoped for the same fanfare that greeted his predecessors when they took out ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before him. But ISIS experts were quick to throw cold water on claims of a significant blow to the group. Qurayshi is no Baghdadi, and a group that once commanded a piece of territory bigger than the United Kingdom is now a guerrilla insurgency with its leadership scattered.

But the group that delivered genocide, mass execution and oppression has proven that it remains a formidable force. A United Nations report released Friday said the terror group is far from vanquished. In fact, it remains a potent force in Iraq and Syria, with a growing presence in Afghanistan and West Africa, according to the UN analysis.

The report — compiled by UN experts on ISIS and al Qaeda before Qurayshi’s death and covering the last six months of 2021 — said ISIS may still have up to $50 million in its coffers.

Even before his demise, according to the UN experts, ISIS had lost several important members of its senior echelon. And yet the group remains a threat. Instability in both Iraq and Syria “indicate that an eventual ISIL resurgence in the core region cannot be ruled out,” the report concludes, referring to the group by its alternate acronym.

In Iraq, ISIS stages attacks on an almost daily basis. In Lebanon, officials says it has found fertile recruiting ground in the city of Tripoli. And the United Nations says ISIS may still have $50 million in its coffers and up to 10,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq.

Last week ISIS launched its biggest attack in three years when the group’s fighters attempted to free inmates from a prison in northeast Syria. It lost the week-long standoff, and hundreds of ISIS inmates, including children, as well as scores of US-backed Kurdish fighters, died in the fighting.

The uptick in ISIS violence has the region’s security officials on edge, precisely because the picture is murkier than it was in ISIS’ heyday, when the group seized Mosul in 2014. Then, a US-led coalition, as well as Iran-backed Shia armed groups, fought years-long battles that ultimately led ISIS territory to vaporize. Now ISIS is virtually invisible. Its spread is detectable but appears to not have a single source.

For that reason, the US raid — as dazzling as the optics may have been to some — raises more questions than it answers. What was the ISIS leader doing in Idlib, where the group’s ostensible rivals Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, a former al Qaeda affiliate, dominates? How was he able to command cells further afield in Syria and Iraq?

Far from reassuring observers and security officials, the devil in the details of Thursday’s operation seems to confirm what experts have been saying for months: Qurayshi was the head of a snake, but it will require a lot more sophistication and international cooperation to exterminate the pit from which he came.

Other top Middle East news

France to reinforce UAE air defense system after drone attacks

France said Friday it had agreed to reinforce the United Arab Emirates’ defense system, including the deployment of Rafale jets, following Houthi attacks.

  • Background: The UAE said Wednesday that it had intercepted three drones that entered its airspace. Top Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr blamed an obscure Iraq-based militia for targeting “a Gulf state.”
  • Why it matters: The UAE has been lobbying the international community for united front against the threats it faces from Iran-backed groups in the region, pushing the US to label the Houthis a terrorist group. The US also pledged to beef up air support for the UAE earlier last week.

Denmark finds members of Iranian opposition group guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia

A Danish court on Friday found three members of an Iranian Arab opposition group guilty of financing and supporting terrorist activity in Iran in collaboration with Saudi intelligence services, local news wire Ritzau reported.

  • Background: The three members of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) were arrested two years ago and have been in custody since.
  • Why it matters: A Norwegian-Iranian was sentenced to seven years in May last year for spying for an Iranian intelligence service and plotting to assassinate one of the ASMLA-members. The two cases have exposed an intelligence power struggle on Danish soil between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Uyghurs in Turkey call for boycott as Beijing Games begin

Hundreds of protesters from China’s Muslim Uyghur community rallied in Istanbul on Friday to call for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

  • Background: The US State Department estimates that up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang since 2017. Beijing says the camps are vocational, aimed at combating terrorism and separatism, and has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses.
  • Why it matters: The Beijing Olympics opened on Friday in the shadow of a diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights record and devoid of most spectators due to the coronavirus pandemic.

What we’re watching

A major issue looming over the Ukraine crisis is whether Russia, the largest supplier of natural gas to Russia, will cut the flow of energy to the continent. Qatar could step in and provide natural gas to Europe if Asian customers agree to it.

Watch this interview with Amena Bakr, Energy Intelligence Chief OPEC Correspondent, on the likelihood of Qatar coming to Europe’s rescue.

Around the region

Environmentally friendly “flying” boats may soon be hovering over Dubai’s waters.

Home to man-made islands, a marina and a creek, Dubai has a lot of boats. Now, the futuristic Gulf city is eyeing a cutting-edge addition to its marine landscape with the introduction of hydrofoil boats.

While traditional boats float, hydrofoils, as the vessels are known, take advantage of the wind by lifting the hull above the water, thus reducing drag and increasing speed. Hydrofoils aren’t new, but Dubai’s version claims to be the first to have zero carbon emissions.

“We have already done it for roads, why not the water?” said French yachtsman Alain Thébault, who has partnered with Swiss-based startup THE JET ZeroEmission to build the world’s first hydrogen powered hydrofoil in Dubai.

His project fits right into the emirate’s climate-friendly plans. Under its clean energy strategy, Dubai is aiming to produce three-quarters of its energy requirements from clean sources by 2050.

The boat is expected to glide in silence above the city’s waters at up to 46 miles per hour, with a capacity of up to 12 passengers, by next year, when the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is part, plans to host the 28th International Climate Summit, known as COP28.

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