Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death: a propaganda, not military, success
The demise of Islamic State, and its underpinning ideology, remain a long way off
Late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an undated image. The death of Al-Baghdadi will undoubtedly weaken Islamic State in important respects. Photograph: US department of defense/Reuters
The announcement by US president Donald Trump that the leader of Islamic State – or Isis – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had killed himself in the course of an attack on his hideout in northwestern Syria, has inevitably raised questions about the impact of his death on the organisation and on the international jihadist movement more generally.
Al-Baghdadi died following an operation launched from Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, led by US special forces with support from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Although in his televised announcement of the death of al-Baghdadi, Trump sought to play up the US role in the raid, senior American officials have acknowledged the significance of SDF support. The operation required a presence on the ground that will now be more difficult to secure following the withdrawal of US forces from the region which Trump recently announced.
The death of Al-Baghdadi prompts the initial question: what comes next for Islamic State? The broader academic literature is ambivalent about the impact on a terrorist group of “decapitation”, ie the assassination of its leader.
Studies tell us that in some circumstances – particularly when a group is disproportionately reliant on a charismatic leader – the removal of that leader may lead to its rapid demise. When this not the case, much depends on the extent of dependence on a single individual, the broader popularity of the group and its level of mobilisation. Some studies suggest groups that lose their leaders through targeted assassination may last longer than those that do not.
Al-Baghdadi was certainly central to the foundation and subsequent expansion of Islamic State. He was born Ibrahim Awad al-Samarrai in the Iraqi town of Samarra, the son of a mosque preacher who claimed direct descent from the prophet Muhammad.
He graduated with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, although there is some dispute as to whether this was in religious studies or education. His transformation into jihadist leader began with the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. He co-founded a militant group that fought US troops and was detained in 2004.
He was held for several months in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and in Camp Bucca detention centre, which has been described as a jihadi university because of the training provided there.
According to one eye-witness account, there were courses on how to use explosives, weapons and how to become a suicide bomber. Official Iraqi sources have claimed that 17 of the 25 most important leaders of Islamic State spent time in US prisons in Iraq between 2004 and 2011.
When the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda became the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Baghdadi was one of its key leaders. Under his leadership the organisation was transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2013, marking a final break with al-Qaeda.
By 2016, Islamic State had begun to sustain serious losses
In June 2014, he delivered a sermon from the pulpit of the Al-Nuri mosque in Mosul in which he declared himself to be the caliph of the new Islamic State. This marked the period of greatest expansion of Islamic State and its increasing involvement in terrorist attacks worldwide.
By mid-2014 the group controlled Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. At its peak it controlled more than 100,000sq km of territory containing more than 11 million people, mostly in Iraq and Syria. In 2014, it inaugurated a series of horrific attacks outside the Middle East and north Africa – in Belgium, France, the UK, the US and beyond – although it is important to note that the greatest impact of its violence was felt within the Middle East.
However, by 2016, Islamic State had begun to sustain serious losses. The US assembled a coalition of more than 70 countries to fight the group with the most prominent roles being played by Iraqi government forces, Iranian-backed militias and Kurdish-led forces, notably the SDF.
Aaron Zelin, one of the foremost commentators on jihadism, argues that Al-Baghdadi’s legacy will surpass that of Osama bin Laden
Earlier in 2019, the last enclaves of Islamic State-held territory were retaken by the Syrian government and the SDF, which declared the elimination of the “caliphate” in March of this year.
The death of Al-Baghdadi will undoubtedly weaken Islamic State in important respects. However, it is unlikely to lead to its demise any time soon. Its core claim that it was not a terrorist group but was at the heart of the government of a functioning state was dealt a massive blow by its loss of territory. The death of the would-be caliph of that state renders the claim meaningless in practical terms.
Nonetheless, Aaron Zelin, one of the foremost commentators on jihadism, argues that Al-Baghdadi’s legacy will surpass that of Osama bin Laden precisely because of his success in transforming the dream of re-establishing the caliphate into a reality – a long-held aspiration of the international jihadist movement and one that is likely to inspire future jihadis for generations.
Furthermore, in organisational terms, Al-Baghdadi oversaw the expansion of the organisation into a diversity of settings in the form of a series of “wilayats” or provinces of Islamic State. These have emerged across the Middle East and North Africa but also in sub-Saharan Africa, south and Southeast Asia and further afield. They are typically focused on a range of domestic concerns and grievances that are not likely to be addressed in the short-term.
In addition, the group has had several years to plan for its survival and the loss of physical territory. It is stronger now than precursor groups were when challenged by the US and its local allies in Iraq in the mid- to late-2000s.
All of this is compounded by the unpredictable consequences of the recent US withdrawal from the northeast of Syria and the subsequent incursion by Turkey into the area.
As is now well-known, the SDF has thousands of suspected Islamic State members and their families in custody, including some 70,000 women and children in Al-Hawl camp, which has been described by an SDF general as a time bomb waiting to go off. In addition, as the caliphate disintegrated, many Islamic State members fled to Turkey.
How Turkey will manage this challenge will be crucial, not least when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is focused almost entirely on battling his Kurdish opponents rather than on dealing with jihadist Sunni groups. Indeed, its recent campaign in Syria was supported by a number of jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, Fatah al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which fought alongside the Syrian National Army, a creation of Turkey.
Many fear that the Turkish invasion will merely embolden these groups.
Finally, the death of Al-Baghdadi will have no impact on the persistence of many of the underlying conditions that made the emergence of Islamic State possible in the first place. While external factors, in particular the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were important, the grievances that attracted recruits to Islamic State stemmed largely from domestic factors, especially the authoritarianism of incumbent regimes.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that for all of the horrific brutality of Islamic State and other jihadist groups, the most extreme and extensive use of violence against civilians in Syria was perpetrated by the government in Damascus.
Thus, despite Trump’s remarks on the death of Al-Baghdadi, there is ample reason to believe that the demise of Islamic State, and of the ideology that underpins it, remains a long way off.
Vincent Durac is associate professor in Middle East politics at University College Dublin