(October 28, 2019 / Wikistrat) Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s Oct. 27 announcement of the death of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in Syria, Wikistrat’s top experts share their analyses of the significance of his death in this special report.
1. Al-Baghdadi’s death is a critical symbolic blow against ISIS, but it is unlikely to spell the demise of the group. ISIS has been in the process of transition since mid-2017 after the Iraqi army retook Mosul from the group, and likely prepared for Baghdadi’s death long ago, given his high profile and the global terrorist threat posed by ISIS.
2. It will be hard for ISIS to replace Baghdadi. His education as a religious scholar, experience in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq during the mid-2000s and his record of having declared the caliphate had given him a unique status in the Salafi-jihadi movement. While ISIS may have other senior leaders who could replace him, they lack Baghdadi’s status and charisma.
3. Membership in the Islamic State was based on a personal pledge of allegiance (bay’ a) to Baghdadi; following his death, it is uncertain how many ISIS members and supporters will follow Baghdadi’s successor and accept his authority in the same way. Furthermore, ISIS global affiliates are no longer obligated to maintain their allegiance to the group now that Baghdadi is gone.
4. A key question in the coming days and weeks is how al-Qaeda will react to Baghdadi’s death: Will Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s leader, try to coopt ISIS’s remaining members, merge the two groups, or attack its affiliates and forces? With the caliph of the so-called Islamic State gone, Al Qaeda will be in an ideal position to push forward and present itself as the one true leader of the global jihad movement.
2019 has been a bad year both for ISIS and Al Qaeda. Prior to Baghdadi’s killing, Osama Bin Laden’s son Hamza Bin Laden, who was being groomed as the future of the global jihadist movement, was eliminated in Afghanistan. However, the fight against global jihad remains a work in progress.
Baghdadi’s death does not mean the death of ISIS. Since its territorial losses in the Middle East, ISIS has focused on the warfare of narratives and ideological supremacy, highlighting that “the will to wage war is more important than winning the war.” A terrorist organization can recover from leadership losses and infrastructure damage; however, cutting off financial sources and countering their ideological narratives weakens it permanently.
As long as ISIS is not ideologically discredited and its extremist narrative, which is still resonating with its worldwide network of supporters, sympathizers and operatives, is not targeted, the terror group will remain relevant and survive in one form or another.
The targeted assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should be greeted with cautious celebration, since its impact will be limited in terms of the overall operational capabilities of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Islamic State]—not least in theaters beyond Syria and Iraq. Since the destruction of territorial Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi attempted—unsuccessfully—to rebrand his leadership from a religious figurehead to a guerrilla warrior.
In that latter role, he polarized Daesh’s military forces and caused a splintering. This led to an internal coup attempt earlier this year and forced him deeper underground. As with most terrorist organizations, underground leaders make decision-making more difficult, and vacuums tend to open. In this case, it seems that someone from his inner circle conspired with Turkey, which itself partnered with the United States, to locate and kill al-Baghdadi.
For the crimes he committed and oversaw, this form of retribution is welcome and should be celebrated. In the Gulf—and beyond—the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also helps to tarnish the image of the omnipotent Daesh and will reduce its ability to recruit. But who comes next? The race to fill the leadership gap will be swift and likely smooth.
If ISIS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is indeed dead, as U.S. President Donald Trump has reported, the following strike me as some of the most important ramifications:
1. The organization’s devolution from a territorial state to a transnational terrorist group, already in process, will accelerate, for two main reasons: With not just the caliphate but now the caliph himself gone, ISIS lacks a central rallying and guiding entity, and even if a successor caliph is found and declared he will lack the charisma of al-Baghdadi, making the centrifugal forces acting on ISIS more powerful than the unifying, centripetal ones.
2. Apocalyptic/eschatological groups such as ISIS have, throughout Islamic history, gone through three phases of rise and decline: preaching revivalist propaganda in opposition; forming a renegade military theocracy; and then seizing power and forming (or taking over) a territorial state which, eventually, declines or is defeated. ISIS had reached phase 3, losing the caliphate, but with al-Baghdadi alive, they regressed to phase 2; and now, with him dead, they are relegated to phase 1. The international community needs to work to make sure they don’t rise above that level ever again.
3. ISIS remains, however, an eschatological movement dedicated to preparing the way for the coming of the (Sunni) Mahdi. It’s thus enamored with “hotwiring the apocalypse,” and this fervent belief will not end with the death of the Caliph.