US: Turkish-backed group killed head of ISIS last month—throws new light on Istanbul bombing

CENTCOM's clarification of the circumstances of Qurayshi's assassination raises serious questions about the Nov. 13 Istanbul bombing, suggesting it was ISIS's revenge, rather than a YPG attack.
Police officers stand at the entrance the street after an explosion on Istanbul's popular pedestrian Istiklal Avenue, late Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022 (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Police officers stand at the entrance the street after an explosion on Istanbul's popular pedestrian Istiklal Avenue, late Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022 (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) – For the second time this year, the US military announced that the head of ISIS had been assassinated in Syria.

This time, it was not the US or one of its partners that killed the terrorist leader, but a Turkish-backed group. Moreover, the assassination occurred over a month ago: in the middle of October, as CENTCOM stated.

The latest information, as provided by CENTCOM, raises new, serious questions about the Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul which killed six people.

Almost immediately after the attack, Turkey attributed it to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish group that forms the leadership and core of the principal US partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

One week later, on Nov. 20, Turkey began a military campaign against the YPG that has involved artillery shelling and aerial bombing, and Ankara now threatens an imminent ground campaign.

However, it seems more likely, particularly with the new information from CENTCOM, that ISIS—not the YPG—was responsible.

Indeed, that is exactly what Mazloum Abdi, Commander in Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the main component, has said: it was ISIS and not the Kurds who carried out the Istanbul bombing.

ISIS, CENTCOM Announcements about Death of ISIS Leader

On Wednesday, ISIS announced, in an audiotape that was long on florid religious language, but short on detail, that its leader was dead.

The nom de guerre of the deceased ISIS leader was Abu al-Hasan al-Hashmi al-Qurayshi—although his real name was Amir Mohammed Sa’id Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla.

Read More: Al-Qurayshi vs. al-Mawla: What’s in a name? What the US doesn’t understand about ISIS

An ISIS spokesman who uses the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Muhajer, said on Wednesday, “I announce and mourn for the Islamic State and the fighters of the almighty Islamic State, the Prince of Believers and the Caliph of the Muslims, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.”

“He was killed while struggling against the enemies of God,” Muhajer continued, although he provided no further detail.

Some of the missing detail did emerge later on Wednesday, and it came from CENTCOM spokesman, Col. Joe Buccino. In a written statement, Buccino provided three key points, explaining when Qurayshi was killed; where he was killed; and by which party.

He was killed “in mid-October,” Buccino said—i.e. about six weeks ago.

The assassination occurred in the southwestern Syrian province of Dar’a, an unstable region, where both Syrian regime figures, as well as those from the Syrian opposition, are regularly assassinated.

In fact, the Dar’a Martyrs Documentation Office reported an increase in assassinations in the province during the month of October.

And most importantly, as Buccino explained, “This operation”—of killing Qurayshi/al-Mawla—“was conducted by the Free Syrian Army.”

The FSA is a group of Syrian army officers, who have defected to the Syrian opposition.

Could there be a relationship between the two attacks? Turkish proxies kill the leader of ISIS, and a month later there is a bombing in Istanbul.

Doesn’t that timeline suggest that ISIS was the party most likely responsible for the Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul?

Ankara’s Dubious Account of Istanbul bombing

Very soon after that bombing, in less than 24 hours, using video from the many security cameras in the area, Turkish authorities had identified the woman who had planted the bomb and had arrested her, along with some 45 other people.

The next day, on Nov. 14, Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, told reporters that the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK]—i.e. the YPG—was responsible. “Our assessment is that the order for the deadly terror attack came from Ain al-Arab [Kobani],” he affirmed, as he vowed retaliation “for this heinous terror attack.”

But Soylu provided no real evidence to support his charge, and it was unclear why either the PKK or YPG would want to attack Turkey at this point. Their interest would seem to lie in keeping the situation calm.

Moreover, as Turkish authorities subsequently provided a bit more information, Soylu’s explanation seemed to grow even more dubious.

Ahlam al-Bashir (Photo: Turkish Police/Twitter)
Ahlam al-Bashir (Photo: Turkish Police/Twitter)

Turkish police identified the woman who had planted the bomb as Ahlam al-Bashir, saying she was a Syrian national. They even released a picture of her.

But as several sources, from both Syria and Turkey, remarked to Kurdistan 24, she does not look Syrian—neither Arab nor Kurdish. Rather, she appears, perhaps, to be from a country like Sudan or Somalia, with a mix of Arab and African features.

Indeed, the picture is also strange, because of Bashir’s clothing. As Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and African Studies at New York’s prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, wrote, it is unlikely that Bashir was actually wearing that sweatshirt—with New York boldly emblazoned across it—when she was arrested.

Rather, as Cook suggested, “It seems more likely that Soylu and his minions put her in the garment” to stir up anti-American sentiment in order to capitalize on such feelings ahead of the national elections, which will be held in June.

Moreover, Turkish authorities have provided little additional information about Bashir, like where in Syria she comes from: what village? what town? They have not said much beyond their claim that she told them she had been trained and sent to Turkey by the PKK—a claim which, of course, cannot be independently verified.

So far, no US (or other western) official has challenged Ankara’s charge that the YPG was behind the Istanbul bombing—or at least they have not done so publicly. 

But, perhaps, they should—because ISIS seems a far more plausible candidate than the YPG, with a clearer motive: revenge for the assassination of its leader a month before.