The news of the possible death of the leader of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, no doubt filled most people with a certain sense of relief. It’s not often the death of a human being elicits such an emotion but Baghdadi, most sane people can agree, barely makes the homo sapiens cut.
Nonetheless, our collective exhale may be premature. According to the Russian defence ministry, Baghdadi may have been caught by a Russian airstrike targeting a meeting of senior ISIS commanders south of Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self-declared caliphate, at the end of May. He was reportedly killed along with 30 other mid-level ISIS commanders and 300 fighters.
Putting aside the neatly rounded death toll figures, there are a few details which cast doubt on the reports. Why, for instance, are the Russians only now disclosing the alleged death, more than two weeks after the airstrike, adding they have not confirmed if it is true? If it is still unconfirmed, one would expect them to withhold information until more is known.
Secondly, the location does not jibe with intelligence reports that Baghdadi was laying low in the desert along the Syrian-Iraqi border. This is what Iraqi intelligence officials told me recently and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed shortly after the Russian announcement.
“The information is that, as of the end of last month, Baghdadi was in Deir al-Zor, in the area between Deir al-Zor and Iraq, in Syrian territory,” Rami Abdulrahman, the Observatory’s director said.
Regardless, most experts agree Baghdadi will be killed at some point, if he isn’t dead already. The last time he made a public statement was November last year, when he released an audio message calling on his fighters to hold ground against the advancing Iraqi army in Mosul, even as he himself made a dash for the desert.
The question is: what will his death mean for ISIS and the broader jihadist enterprise?
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Ironically, according to some experts, Baghdadi’s death may well put the final nail in ISIS’s coffin, but at the same time it would strengthen al-Qaeda and potentially escalate the dangers posed by transnational terrorism.
The devil, in this case, is in the operational details. When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the effects were not so devastating for al-Qaeda. There were a number of structural and logistical reasons for this. The al-Qaeda leadership, by the mid-2000s, had already decided to transform its organization into a brand, which they loaned out to affiliates in exchange for obedience to their cause. The affiliates were then free to use the al-Qaeda name to raise their own funds and attract recruits.
In the wake of bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda suffered a minor leadership crisis but nothing that caused too much turmoil, in part because bin Laden had positioned his organization ahead of himself, the brand ahead of personality.
The system worked. Even after bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda’s brand remained a potent symbol in the jihadi universe. The nature of al-Qaeda’s objectives lent itself to this kind of amorphous structure. Unlike ISIS, there was no centralized “caliphate” that drained resources and focused attention on holding geographical space. Nor was there an ideological imperative to pledge allegiance to a caliph. When groups jumped on the al-Qaeda bandwagon, they were investing in a purpose, not a person.
Baghdadi chose a different path, and early on it proved effective. By creating a caliphate and naming himself caliph, he rallied like-minded religious ideologues around a concrete idea. Where al-Qaeda advocated caution and played the long game, Baghdadi promised the realization of the jihadi dream—the caliphate—in the now. The remarkable growth of ISIS during the early weeks and months after it established its caliphate in Syria and Iraq reflects the power of Baghdadi’s promise.
But ISIS’s strength is also its Achilles’ heel. Baghdadi demanded bay’at, or allegiance, to himself personally. His raison d’etre was the caliphate, a project built on sand that is now in the process of collapsing. Without Baghdadi at the helm, ISIS will lose the uniqueness that separated it from al-Qaeda. Without a caliphate, it becomes al-Qaeda by a different name.
“His status as caliph was important for driving recruitment,” says Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the U.S.-based Rand Corporation. “It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen in these situations, but killing Baghdadi is a necessary step, though not sufficient, for defeating ISIS.”
Clarke cautions against premature celebrations. ISIS will not simply disappear following Baghdadi’s death. Its brand also has some staying power. “And he was probably not very important in operational terms,” he says. “That role fell to others like Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.”
Adnani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in August last year. His death did little to curb ISIS’s operational momentum. This year, the group has taken credit for a wave of attacks around the globe.
Nonetheless, with Baghdadi gone, the ISIS brand will fade. If it continues to transition to an al-Qaeda-style, franchise-based movement, a process it began last year, it will only benefit al-Qaeda. Clarke and others surmise Ayman al-Zawahiri has purposely pulled al-Qaeda back from its terrorist operations in western countries to let ISIS “take the heat” while al-Qaeda consolidates political legitimacy in Syria.
But the father of modern transnational terrorism is not done with the west just yet, Clarke warns. He and others worry the death of Baghdadi would set the stage for a rapprochement between ISIS and al-Qaeda. It seems natural: with the end of the caliphate and the cult of personality that drove it forward, al-Qaeda’s methodical approach to jihad would win the day.
Its patience appears to be paying off. In the see-saw battle between the world’s most powerful terrorist organizations, as ISIS rose, al-Qaeda fell. Now, as ISIS falls, al-Qaeda appears set to rise again.