Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead... but Isis will live on. Here’s how

Isis retains funds, military capabilities and will have been prepared for the death of its leader, analysts say

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Monday 28 October 2019 18:36 GMT
The attack on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

They called him al-shabha, “the ghost”, and, for the first few years following Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ascendency in 2010 to reign over what would later become Isis, even some in the upper echelons of the group harboured doubts that he actually existed.

Baghdadi’s 2014 emergence as leader of the caliphate in Mosul was by design, counter-terrorism experts say – a way to deflect attention from the hardcore former Ba’athists who dominated the group’s eight-strong council, and evidence that Isis was seeking to avoid the mistakes of jihadi groups in the past. And specialists say that Isis also prepared for the eventual death of Baghdadi, putting in place a structure designed to quickly fill any leadership gaps, and a global network more like a corporate franchising model than a top-down hierarchy.

“Losing a top figure or leader is not, for them, a deal-breaker,” said Nawar Oliver, a military specialist at the Omran Institute, an Istanbul think tank. “They will adapt. They have this ability of shape-shifting immediately.”

But Baghdadi’s death is undeniably a blow to Isis. For one thing, many of the pledges of loyalty, or “bay’ah”, by both recruits and organisations throughout Africa and Asia were made to him personally, rather than to Isis as a whole, complicating efforts to maintain ties with groups that stretch from the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines to Boko Haram in Nigeria.

For adherents, Baghdadi’s death is yet another disappointment in a long list of defeats that include losing control of vast stretches of land in Iraq and Syria.

“Since they lost the territory, it’s been very difficult to promote the narrative that they are a state, different from any radical group out there,” said HA Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Now that Baghdadi’s gone, even as a symbolic figure, anyone who replaces him will be enjoying a handicap if he promises to recreate the caliphate again.”

But counter-terrorism experts who are trying to discern Isis’s next moves also say that Baghdadi had long been relegated to the role of a figurehead, an occasional spokesman rather than an operational leader.

While his death, apparently at the hands of US commandos swooping into his northwest Syria hideout at the weekend, was a blow to Isis, experts suggest the group will regenerate, just as it did after previous losses.

Isis itself is unique, built around an idea floating in the clouds of cyberspace. And its vision includes a do-it-yourself model of jihad that can be easily replicated and spread.

“It is a flexible organisation, intensely adaptable, and has learned from the mistakes of other groups,” said Amanda Rogers, a professor of Middle East studies at Colgate University. “Baghdadi deliberately obfuscated his identity. The whole ghost approach was built into the Isis structure. They made a serious effort to invest charismatic appeal in the organisation, not a figurehead. Isis is a viral idea.”

The group is also believed to be holding on to a vast treasury of gold, looted from Iraq and northern Syria, that it can use to finance future operations, as well as access to smuggling rackets. A UN report estimates the group retains $300m (£233m) without any of the obligations of financing the services required to run a territory.

In terms of its military capabilities, it remains a potent force, launching near daily attacks in both Iraq and Syria, re-establishing in Libya and launching operations in fresh territory such as Sri Lanka.

“Isis continues to aspire to global relevance,” said the recent UN report. “The dispersed, delegated leadership approach entails giving specific better-established Isis affiliates responsibility for supporting lesser or newer ones.”

‘He died whimpering and crying’: Trump announces Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed in US raid in Syria

Isis’s eight-member shura council, believed to be dominated by former Iraqi Ba’ath Party members linked to Saddam Hussein’s regime, will decide on a leader for the group.

Isis is well-equipped with a system of couriers that will make it unnecessary for all eight to gather in the same place.

Should one or more of the members of the shura council fall, Isis has two members waiting in the wings to take over, as it does with most important posts.

The deaths of Baghdadi’s predecessors, including the spectacular 2006 killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq and the 2011 killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, were setbacks for jihadis, but ultimately failed to kill off the groups, dampen their momentum or even set off disruptive succession fights.

“Decapitation strikes, the killing of a group’s leader, rarely translate to a death knell for these groups, which are often able to survive targeted assassinations against leadership figures,” said a note issued on Monday by the Soufan Group, the consultancy founded by former FBI Al Qaeda hunter Ali Soufan.

Isis affiliates in Africa, South Asia and the Far East operate more like franchises than business arms. Each will have to decide whether to continue to stay with the Isis brand, switch to Al Qaeda, or go independent.

“They can still keep going,” said Christopher Griffin, a counter-insurgency specialist focusing on African extremist networks. “They’ll be able to choose. They’ll say, 'Baghdadi is gone, and we’ll move on.' Al Qaeda didn’t die with Osama bin Laden, either. If anything, these groups ended up more efficient. The organisations continued to grow and ramp up operations.”

Jihadi social media channels were mostly mute on the reported killing, with adherents likely awaiting official confirmation. President Donald Trump said Baghdadi died like a coward, even harming a dog as he blew himself up.

The ruins of the US attack on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (EPA)

But counter-terrorism experts say that, according to Isis ideology, pulling the trigger on a suicide vest provides a straight ticket to heaven. They cautioned that Mr Trump’s harping on the manner of Baghdadi’s death could encourage followers to seek vengeance and breathe new life into the group.

“The killing may actually rejuvenate Isis,” said Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. She has spent years in Syria and Iraq interviewing former Isis members now in prison. “It will rally them,” she said. ‘If you’re angry, hurt, scared, you have no choice. The only choice is to try to fight.”

The prevailing despair throughout the Arab world, as well as ungoverned chaotic spaces throughout the Middle East and Africa will ultimately feed Isis’s revival. or else spawn the emergence of a new version of the group. Baghdadi’s death comes during a year of protests and uprisings against corruption, misgovernance, incompetence and brutality of ruling systems in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, all of which are sources of Isis recruits.

“Isis is one particularly gruesome iteration of a larger problem, which is the fundamental collapse of politics in the region,” said Tobias Schneider, research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “There’s no legitimate pathways to change. There’s no room for reform. If you imagine yourself a young man or young woman in the Middle East, there seems to be no legitimate pathway to fulfil your aspirations.”

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