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Leadership Decapitation and the Islamic States: Is al-Baghdadi’s Death a Hollow Victory?

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On October 27, 2019, US President Donald Trump lauded the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed the previous day, as a major victory. The US administration added that the killing of al-Baghdadi delivered a heavy blow to the Islamic militant group, making the world a ‘much safer place’. As a culmination of protracted intelligence gathering and sharing, the operation’s success will most likely serve as a temporary counterweight to the US administration’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria – a decision that opened the path and facilitated a Turkish military operation against Kurdish forces.

The proclamation has been made that killing al-Baghdadi was an important move given his symbolic value and his ability to inspire followers and would-be followers to step beyond al-Qaeda’s ideological realm and push for the creation of a caliphate. Al-Baghdadi’s death, though a tactical victory and successful show of kinetic forces by US forces, is unlikely to yield any significant material gains against the terrorist militant group in both the short and long term. The inherent belief in the idea that the removal or decapitation of a terrorist group’s chief will invariably lead to the disintegration of the entire group has been disproven on numerous occasions, though there exists insufficient evidence to carry one or the other assertions categorically forward.

Contrary to the views of terrorism scholars who have claimed that similar to political organizations terrorist groups cannot function in the absence of leadership, the function of the Islamic State illustrates the inverse. Even as a loose network of individuals and cells conjoined by a flexible and violent ideology, the very concept of the Islamic State that espouses terrorism and violence as a system, has effectively carried out its activities across a broad geographical and societal milieu. Even after the so-called caliphate’s de facto capital and internal structures ceased to exist, the potency of the Islamic State did not summarily dissipate.

Terrorist groups and organizations disturbed through such operations as decapitation missions can fragment or bud like Pharaoh ants living in multi-colonies. Short term benefits may result in fewer terrorist or militant activities, however, long term effects have the potential to be far more counterproductive, particularly as affiliates of the Islamic State or individuals who believe in and follow the group’s cause are unlikely to feel any prohibitive impact as a result of a leader’s death. The size and composition of the Islamic State, such as the complex structure of the group, makes it resilient to the type of operation that eliminated al-Baghdadi.

The fact that al-Baghdadi maintained rather limited contact and communication with the broader group is indicative of the Islamic State’s composite parts ability to withstand such a blow to its highest rank. The term ‘leadership’ in the context of the Islamic State holds reasonably little weight.

Much can be said about the longevity of the Islamic State, particularly in the context of its effective social media activities and the relative attraction of its brand. The US tactical victory this past October was overshadowed, even before the operation’s execution, by major factors facilitating the group’s endurance. Aside from its capacity to engage with and appeal to young people, the Islamic State is especially notable for its ability to attract members from ‘Western’ democratic states that are seen as deeply liberal. It is also important to be mindful of the salience of religion as an incorporeal, yet undeniably entrancing and strong unifying element, and one that takes root in communities stretching from South East Asia, through Central Asia and the Middle East, to those of many parts of Africa.

At present, there appears to be no immediate shortage of followers and no dearth of promising audience willing to listen to the plight of people fighting for a bastardized religious cause.  At the same time, the group’s recent accomplishments and proven record of achievement in establishing a proto-state has come in two distinct and challenging forms: the material form carved out of captured territory, and a phantom form enshrined in a generative belief system.

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Scott N. Romaniuk

Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk completed his PhD at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His teaching and research specializations include International Relations, Military and Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Research Methods. He is a Senior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism Security and Society (TSAS) and a member of the Conflict, Terrorism and Development (CTD) Collaboratory at Michigan State University.

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