Impact of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Death on ISIS
On October 25, US special forces killed the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a raid that targeted his compound near the village of Brisha in Idlib province, Syria. Baghdadi, who had been the leader of ISIS since 2010, was responsible for splitting the group off from al-Qaeda, and oversaw the group’s swift territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, which culminated in his proclamation as caliph in June of 2014. As the head of ISIS, he was also directly responsible for the group’s campaign of terror and many war atrocities committed since the group’s rise in Syria in 2013.
The death of Baghdadi is without a doubt an important step in the war against ISIS and a key development in degrading and destroying the terrorist group’s capability to carry out attacks. However, it is important to consider the consequences of his death and not to assume that his death will result in a complete and swift defeat of ISIS and its ideology. Particularly in recent years as ISIS has lost all of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group has transitioned to a more global terrorist organization which inspires attacks and has affiliates in many countries outside of its core region.
ISIS quickly named a successor to Baghdadi, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, in an audio message on October 31. The name is likely a nom de guerre often given to ISIS leaders when they assume a new role, and so far no intelligence has indicated what al-Qurayshi’s previous name and role may have been. The epidate “al-Qurayshi” indicates that ISIS believes the individual is a descendant of the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet, a key requirement for any individual who is proclaimed caliph. The statement put out by ISIS does indicate that the group has proclaimed their new leader the caliph, and continues to see itself as a caliphate despite the fact that a caliph is required to hold territory for his followers. It also indicates that the death of Baghdadi is unlikely to change the way the group sees itself, with a continued assumption that ISIS is a caliphate despite the loss of its territory, and that its various regional affiliates owe the central leadership their fealty.
It remains to be seen if al-Qurayshi will be as effective a leader as Baghdadi, and ultimately, whether he has the charisma of Baghdadi and the ability to inspire the group’s fighters. In assessing the impact Baghdadi’s death will have on the group, it will be important to see if al-Qurayshi has that ability to inspire attacks. If he has Baghdadi’s effectiveness as a spiritual leader of the group, then Baghdadi’s death will have limited impact. But if it turns out al-Qurayshi does not have that charisma, Baghdadi’s death will have a greater impact on ISIS. The potential impact is similar to the situation faced by Al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin-Laden in 2011, where it became clear that his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri did not have bin-Laden’s charisma and leadership qualities, so he had a lesser ability than bin-Laden to inspire the group’s fighters.
It also remains unclear if the various regional ISIS affiliates will pledge allegiance to al-Qurayshi. The pledge of allegiance by regional ISIS affiliates will be an indication of if ISIS supporters see their new leader as the legitimate caliph or an imposter, and it is possible that some affiliates will use the opportunity of Baghdadi’s death to break away from ISIS. It will also be a test of al-Qurayshi’s ability to inspire allegiance from ISIS fighters, and whether he and the central ruling council of ISIS are able to exert some level of command over the various regional affiliates.
On the operational level, Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to have a substantial impact on ISIS’s operations. In particular since it became clear in recent years that ISIS would lose its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group has decentralized and dispersed its fighters in the remote areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Despite the loss of its last holdout in March of this year, ISIS has continued to carry out numerous attacks a week in Iraq and Syria showing that the group is still capable of carrying out an insurgency campaign in these two countries. Given Baghdadi’s isolation in the Idlib province at the time of his death with limited ability to communicate with the outside world, it is unlikely that he was exercising direct control over the constant attacks of his fighters, and the ability of ISIS insurgents to continue to carry out frequent attacks in Iraq and Syria will likely continue unabated. The swift appointment of a successor also indicates that ISIS’s core leadership is still able to communicate and has not been completely disrupted by the recent losses the group has suffered, as the appointment of a new leader was required to be approved by the shura council. It is important to note, however, that Baghdadi’s death may cause ISIS leaders to increase their own security and focus more on ensuring their own survival, which may negatively impact ISIS’s ability to plan and carry out attacks in the short term as ISIS leaders may be more concerned with their survival and may be less willing to take risks.
Map of ISIS Terror
It is also important to note that the various ISIS affiliates outside of Iraq and Syria are unlikely to be impacted by the death of Baghdadi, given many of these various groups merely pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, but retained operational independence. The various ISIS affiliates that have formed in recent years from sub-Saharan Africa to the Philippines have largely formed from existing Salafi-Jihadist groups, and merely formed break-off groups with their own leaders who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. Boko Haram for example, pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, though a leadership split the following year has left the group divided between pro and anti-ISIS camps. The group was a capable terrorist organization long before pledging allegiance to ISIS, and the group does not rely on ISIS’s central leadership in Iraq and Syria in order to plan attacks. It remains to be seen however if the various affiliates outside of ISIS’s heartland in Iraq and Syria will pledge allegiance to the new leader of ISIS, or take this opportunity to split off and proclaim their own leader.
In assessing the impact of Baghdadi's death, it is important to consider the strength of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS) around the time when Baghdadi assumed control of the group when his predecessor was killed in 2010. At the time of the US withdrawal from Iraq the following year, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had an estimated 700 fighters and cash reserves estimated in the low thousands of dollars, with no extensive global support network that ISIS has now. It was with this small group that ISIS would begin its expansion that led to its territorial conquests in Iraq and Syria. In contrast, according to a report issued by the Pentagon last year, ISIS had a minimum strength of 14,000 fighters, with upward estimates up to 30,000. ISIS is also estimated to have hundreds of millions of dollars in cash on hand that it smuggled out of its last strongholds it held in Iraq and Syria, and with its many regional affiliates and extensive online presence, the group has a much larger support network than AQI ever had. In addition, the leadership of AQI was completely devastated by American led efforts prior to the 2011 withdrawal, and while the ISIS leadership has certainly suffered some loses, it is far more intact than AQI’s leadership structure in 2011. All of this means that compared to the organization that Baghdadi took over in 2010, the organization that al-Qurayshi is taking over following the death of Baghdadi is still capable, well funded and with many thousands of fighters ready to carry out attacks in Iraq and Syria, with an extensive global support network that spreads ISIS influence far outside of its home region.
In addition to these extensive capabilities that ISIS has managed to retain despite losing its territory, it is also important to note that the conditions that allowed ISIS to rapidly conquer territory in Iraq and Syria largely remain unchanged, and recent developments in both Iraq and Syria has only made both countries more vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence. In Syria, the US withdrawal from the Syrian-Turkish border and Turkish offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which began on October 9, has vastly degraded the capability of the SDF to conduct counterterrorism operations against ISIS, as the SDF has been forced to redeploy troops to the Turkish border. ISIS has already taken advantage of this situation by increasing the rate of attacks in Syria and by having some of its fighters kept in prisons run by the SDF use the opportunity to escape. In Iraq, ongoing widespread protests against the government that began earlier this month and resumed on October 25 leaves Iraq more vulnerable to any resurgence of ISIS attacks, and the government’s brutal response to the protests threatens to further alienate its citizens. In addition, reconstruction in territory formerly controlled by ISIS such as Mosul has been incredibly slow and underfunded, leaving the majority Sunni population that ISIS exploited in the past resentful towards the government in Baghdad and with the region further undermined by constant insurgent attacks by ISIS fighters. This means that in both Iraq and Syria, the authorities are in a weaker position to face any ISIS resurgence, and combined with ISIS strength that survived the dissolution of all its territory means that ISIS even without its charismatic leader is in a strong position to use the current situation to its advantage.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death was a necessary and important step in degrading the capabilities of ISIS and destroying its leadership. It was also vital to bring the terrorist leader to justice for the many atrocities that his group has committed. His death will also undoubtedly leave the remaining ISIS leaders wary of taking risks in the near future and will likely drive them further underground with a more limited ability to communicate and plan the group’s next moves.
However, the overall impact of Baghdadi’s death on ISIS will be limited, especially in the long term. ISIS fighters have been more widely dispersed in the remote regions of Iraq and Syria as far back as the siege of Mosul in 2017, and have been preparing since then for a more decentralized insurgency campaign where ISIS fighters carry out small scale attacks at the local level in the regions they operate in, with limited central planning from ISIS leadership. By the time of his death, Baghdadi likely had very limited contact with his fighters and was largely serving as the spiritual head by then, with his group having expanded its influence far beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria through its online media arm and pledges of allegiance from groups in sub-saharan Africa to the Philippines. Regardless of whether Baghdadi’s successor, al-Qurayshi, turns out to be an effective leader or not, the surviving material strength of ISIS as well as the continued unstable situation in Iraq and Syria means that the group will continue to regain strength and continue its rate of attacks in the region.
Moving forward, it will be vital for countries contributing forces and support to the coalition to defeat ISIS to not assume that the death of Baghdadi means mission accomplished. The strength of the group means that it is vital that local forces in Iraq and Syria continue to receive outside support so that their forces can continue constant counterterrorism operations. It is vital that coalition forces follow up the death of Baghdadi by targeting ISIS leadership. This would further degrade ISIS’s command structure and hamper the ability of ISIS to recover from the death of its leader.
It is important to note that the death of any one leader will never lead to the end of terrorism inspired by the Salafi-Jihadist ideology, and it will be near impossible to destroy ISIS if they continue to have unstable countries to operate in. Support for reconstruction and improved governance, not just military support, as well as countering the ideology of ISIS, remains a vital goal that is often not focused on enough with over emphasis on targeting terrorist groups. With support for the local forces in both Iraq and Syria now waning, the possibility that ISIS will make a comeback despite the death of its leader remains high.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will increase monitoring of ISIS in the coming weeks to watch for signs of ISIS fighters launching revenge attacks for the death of Baghdadi. In addition, CTG will be gathering intelligence on al-Qurayshi and determining what al-Qurayshi’s background is, how he may lead ISIS and if he will be as effective a leader as Baghdadi.
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