By Kabir Taneja
On October 27, US President Donald Trump in a long address to the nation from the White House announced the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive chief of ISIS, who led the terror group’s rise into the most feared in the world. The group gained its global notoriety through ‘shock and awe’, committing brutal attacks and making macabre productions out of them, using the internet to disseminate their ground successes in controlling both territory and populations through unimaginable violence.
Baghdadi died after detonating a suicide vest during a raid on a compound near the Syrian town of Idlib by US Army’s elite Delta Force, ending a near decade long hunt for him. Since Baghdadi’s appearance at Mosul’s Al Nuri mosque in 2014, where after taking over the town, he announced the setting up of the Islamic State; he had become the most wanted terrorist in the world. Trump described the heinousness of ISIS in detail during his press conference; underlining his previous stance once again that ISIS indeed had been defeated, and the elimination of Baghdadi seals the chapter.
However, many questions now arise on the future of ISIS. Firstly, there is absolutely no doubt that this was a major breakthrough by the US and its allies. While already on the downslide, losing Baghdadi and in him the caliph of the Islamic State is a tactical, moral and a narrative victory against ISIS. More than Baghdadi’s operational relevance, specifically after the loss of territory that the group held, it is the loss of the ideologue, leader, and the point of singularity in a chaotic civil war in Syria where multiple other factions and players, domestic and international alike, found common ground in the urgency to defeat the Islamic State. In this strange world, the levels of violence brought in by ISIS were unpalatable even to other jihadist groups.
Baghdadi meeting his end in Idlib raises some interesting questions as well. While reports still differ on the granular details of the raid, it is well known that he took his own security seriously, going to extreme lengths to protect himself from his own as much as from outside powers. Nevertheless, Idlib in northwestern Syria is a broth of a host of Islamist groups and not an ISIS stronghold. In fact, it is groups aligned with Al Qaeda that largely run the show there, making Baghdadi’s presence in the area strange to say the least. While seeds of the ISIS we know today come from the erstwhile Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the fractured relationship between Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ISIS’s original ideologue, both jihadist groups saw each other as a threat to their own curated brands of violence and terror.
There are already many theories around the geography where Baghdadi was ultimately killed. While one can argue that the notoriety of Idlib may well have provided a security cover by befriending one of the many players active in the region, the fact that reports suggested that Baghdadi’s move from other former strongholds of ISIS in Syria was not new, and in fact happened more than three months ago during the summer adds an interesting footnote to the story. Other reports also suggest that, in what was somewhat of a repeat of strategy from the 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Bin Laden, intelligence gathered from one of Baghdadi’s wives and a courier by Iraq and the Kurds finally got the Americans close to his compound in Barisha. Another report also suggested that one of Baghdadi’s nephews was co-opted by Iraqi intelligence to give up vital information about the Islamic State’s leader’s movements. President Trump gave details on how it had become a cat and mouse game between US intelligence and Baghdadi, underlining that this outcome was inevitable since the summer this year.
As many accounts and unverified reports find their way out after Baghdadi’s death, along with many states and players in the region clamouring over each other to stake claim of their intelligence leading America to the raid, it is not how and who’s intelligence finally worked, but what happens now to ISIS itself. Already on the run with next to no territory under its control, with regular and significant decapitating strikes against regional ISIS leaders in Syria over the past two years, puncturing leadership ranks and fragmenting the group’s hierarchy into uncertainty, the future of ISIS is difficult to ascertain at this juncture. However, it is still safe to say, ISIS is not over yet. One of the theories that can be looked into is that Baghdadi was in Idlib to orchestrate some kind of arrangement with local factions within the region, despite the dangers of not having any centralized authority in that part of Syria, allowing ISIS to build alliances in what is at best a broth of jihadist groups clamouring over each other for supremacy. If Baghdadi was indeed in talks with pro-Al Qaeda factions or others, his presence there itself may have been his greatest strategy mistake (or his only option).
Within hours of the Baghdadi raid, reports of air strikes in the region of Jarablus, a stone’s throw away from the Turkish border, killing ISIS spokesman and Baghdadi’s right hand aide Abu Hassan al-Muhajir appeared. Muhajir who’s real identity is unknown, like Baghdadi, was also in an area that was not controlled by ISIS. Even though Baghdadi and Muhajir were 200 km apart when they met their ultimate end, both were near the Turkish border, where the skies are controlled by Russia, Turkey, the Syrian regime and the ground recently opened up to the Turkish military to operate in as the US withdrew military support to the Kurds. Nonetheless, this region remains rife for people smugglers, and it remains a possibility that Baghdadi and Muhajir also looked to gain some safety by crossing over into Turkey from two different points.
Amidst all this, however, what happens next within ISIS remains unclear. Baghdadhi and Muhajir were arguably the only two known public identities of ISIS’s hierarchical structures. What will happen now? What will the replacement process be? How will the new ISIS leader be chosen? Perhaps, more importantly, who will choose him and what will be the process? How deep is the hierarchical structure of ISIS currently, and who is the group’s main religious authority now? How deep is the leadership ‘bench strength’ beyond Baghdadi and Muhajir? All these questions have no clear answers at this point, however what remains known is that ISIS still has a strong ecosystem of ardent supporters of the cause numbering in thousands. A fragmentation, or de-centralization of ISIS may only turn out to be bad news instead of good after Baghdadi’s death. While it may take time for a new ‘caliph’ to come through, elevating Baghdadi to a saint like figure in his death and a whole construct of ISIS emirs and military chiefs continuing to orchestrate jihad and war for the larger caliphate remains a high probability for the group’s immediate near future. ISIS has survived these sort of leader decapitations before as researcher Aaron Y Zelin of the Washington Institute pointed out that in 2010, Islamic State in Iraq’s (ISI was the prequel to ISIS) two top leaders, Abu Umar and Abu Hamza, were killed in a US drone strike near Tikrit. Despite their deaths, ISIS came to be.
Beyond the organization challenges for ISIS, the threat it poses remains stable. It has already created the legacy it needed to in order to rally people around itself. The Easter attacks in April this year which killed over 250 people in Sri Lanka was a case in point, where it remains murky to this day whether ISIS’s central authorities were even aware of the attack’s plans prior to it taking place. As far as threat assessments go, ISIS had already moved its mandate for its followers to a ‘DIY’ style of jihad, where the ‘pro-ISIS’ thinker with access to the group’s intensive online propaganda sitting hundreds of miles away in other countries became equally, if not more, dangerous as the ISIS fighter branding a Kalashnikov on the ground in Syria. In its version of open-source jihad, Baghdadi has already done the biggest damage that he could have, both on the ground as a mad man, plunderer, murderer and a rapist to leaving behind a jihad strategy that will not end with him.
Ultimately, Baghdadi’s death goes beyond strategic victories and is a critical moment in the fight against ISIS. The significance of this outcome cannot be stressed enough, and adds a big question mark for now on the fantasy world of violence and murder, promoted via a globally aired propaganda ecosystem, weaponising the internet, which brought the heinousness of ISIS’s violence to every living room, television and smart phone in the world.