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The head of the Islamic State Militant Group is dead. Here's what that means for ISIS

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The head of the Islamic State militant group is dead. U.S. officials say Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi detonated a large explosive during a raid by U.S. special forces in northwestern Syria. The explosion killed the ISIS leader and several members of his family.

Charles Lister joins us to talk about the role al-Qurayshi played and what his death means for ISIS. Lister is a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism Programs at the Middle East Institute. Good to have you here.

CHARLES LISTER: Hi, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: To start with, how powerful is ISIS at this point? I ask because the death of al-Qurayshi's predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in a similar way in 2019, was supposed to have significantly decreased the ISIS threat.

LISTER: Yeah. Well, it's the question. I mean, ISIS is a shadow of its former self. I mean, when ISIS exploded onto all of our newspapers in 2014, it was, you know, blasting its way across Syria and Iraq and controlled a territory the size of Great Britain. So it's a very, very long way away from where it was then.

But it is still a very capable insurgent organization. It has been conducting a persistent and consistent series of attacks against all kinds of actors across Syria and Iraq over the last two to three years. That was when it lost its last pockets of territory. And it continues to pose a pretty significant threat.

And two weeks ago, of course, it took over a portion of the biggest prison holding ISIS prisoners - actually the biggest prison in the world for ISIS prisoners. But it was in northeastern Syria, and that was certainly a big wake-up call for what it was capable of doing.

SHAPIRO: How broadly would you characterize the leadership of al-Qurayshi? How did the group operate under him?

LISTER: Well, that's the million-dollar question. So as an analyst of ISIS and someone who does - who watches them, you know, day on day, the general impression we've got is that the leadership has kind of decentralized itself. It has disconnected somewhat from running the day-to-day operations of the insurgency, and it's done that for, you know, obvious reasons of survival and in part because it doesn't control territory anymore. So they don't need that kind of strict command and control kind of structure.

But interestingly, what we've heard from the U.S. government today is actually quite a significantly different picture, that allegedly al-Qurayshi has been in day-to-day control communication not just with operatives in Syria and Iraq but across the world. It's hard to know how much of that is kind of optics to display on a big day for the U.S. government having, you know, achieved this success and how much of it is actually reality. It doesn't necessarily add up with what we've known until now. But that's certainly what we're being told.

SHAPIRO: Do you think his death or the death of any single leader, for that matter, is likely to make a big difference in ISIS operations?

LISTER: So if you asked me that question back in 2014 and '15 when ISIS was at its kind of peak of territorial control, it was trying to be a state. It was presenting itself as a territorial entity. At that point, you really need a rigid and capable senior leadership. That senior leadership will run everything day to day.

But ISIS is not in that place today. And as far as I'm concerned, they don't need a rigid leadership structure. They don't need a senior leader to be commanding, you know, basic day-to-day operations as a kind of guerrilla insurgency. So no, ultimately, I don't think this is a big game changer.

It certainly is a big blow to ISIS morale in Syria and Iraq but also internationally. And that shouldn't be discounted, but I can't see it having a really significant impact on ISIS' sort of day-to-day operations and the challenges that that poses to actors of all kinds on a local level.

SHAPIRO: Is there an obvious successor waiting in the wings?

LISTER: That, at the moment, is relatively unknown. You know, for obvious reasons, this is a terrorist organization that's currently existing in the shadows. There's no sort of open-source information about who the successor will be.

But ISIS is a extremely kind of bureaucratic - an obsessively bureaucratic organization. It always has been. So they'll undoubtedly have a line of succession in place, and there will undoubtedly have been a plan put in place for a scenario exactly like this. But as for a name, we don't know yet.

SHAPIRO: That's Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism Programs at the Middle East Institute. Thank you for speaking with us today.

LISTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.