The new leader of Islamic State has been confirmed as Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi, according to officials from two intelligence services. He is one of the terror group’s founding members and has led the enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority and has overseen operations around the globe.
The Guardian has learned that Salbi was named leader hours after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October. The name that the group gave for Baghdadi’s replacement at the time, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, was a nom de guerre not recognised by other senior leaders or intelligence agencies.
In the three months since the raid that killed Baghdadi, a fuller picture of Salbi has been pieced together by regional and western spies, placing him at the centre of Isis decision-making – and that of its forerunners – and portraying him as a hardened veteran in the same vein as Baghdadi, unflinching in his loyalty to the extremist group.
Salbi, as intelligence officials now know him, rose through the ranks helped by his background as an Islamic scholar and gave religious rulings that underwrote the genocide against Yazidis and the emptying of the Nieveh Plains in northern Iraq during the height of the ISIS rampage. Salbi holds a degree in sharia law from the University of Mosul.
Before Baghdadi’s death in a US military raid in north-west Syria on 27 October, the US state department put a $5m bounty on Salbi’s head and on two other senior members of the group.
ISIS is yet to regain anything like the juggernaut-like momentum that led to it threatening the regional order after Baghdadi proclaimed himself a caliph of the Islamic world in mid-2014. However, it has shown signs of regrouping since it lost its last foothold of land in the deserts of eastern Syria in March last year.
Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have warned since last summer of an increase in attacks in the centre and north of the country. ISIS claimed to have carried out 106 attacks between 20 and 26 December to avenge the deaths of Baghdadi and the Isis propaganda chief, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, on the same day.