What new leadership means for Islamic State
- Middle East and North Africa
What new leadership means for Islamic State
Islamic State (IS) on 31 October confirmed the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and announced his successor. On 27 October US President Donald Trump had announced that Baghdadi had been killed in a US special forces raid outside the village of Barisha (Idlib province, Syria).
Four key risk points:
1. Despite the appointment of a successor, the death of IS’s leader is a significant symbolic blow that will undermine the group’s ability to inspire followers.
2. IS militants in Iraq and Syria will retain significant operational capabilities and will take advantage of regional upheaval to launch attacks against security forces.
3. Baghdadi’s death will have little operational impact on IS’s affiliates and is likely to provoke revenge attacks by existing sympathisers in the coming weeks.
4. It also marks a significant political win for Trump, especially given recent criticism about his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
IS confirmed Baghdadi’s death in an audio message posted by its media arm Amaq. This message also announced Baghdadi’s successor using his nom de guerre Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. It called on Muslims to pledge allegiance to him. However, it did not provide any biographical details, and his identity and real name remain a matter of speculation.
The message was delivered by new IS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, who also confirmed the death of former spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, who had been killed in a joint operation by US and Syrian Kurdish forces hours after Baghdadi’s death. Muhajir had been described as Baghdadi’s “right-hand man” and a potential successor.
A symbolic blow
Baghdadi took over as leader of what was then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2010, before declaring himself “caliph” (leader of all Muslims) in July 2014 after an acrimonious split with al-Qaida. He presided over IS as it grew into the world’s pre-eminent Islamist extremist organisation, controlling large swathes of Iraq and Syria, fostering a global network of affiliates, and inspiring acts of terrorism from the US and France, to Libya and the Philippines.
His continued presence at the helm of the organisation likely helped it to retain the support of followers after it lost control of its last territorial enclave in Syria in March. Speculation that this territorial loss would significantly undermine IS’s ability to inspire acts of terrorism proved somewhat exaggerated. In the ensuing months, many followers have reaffirmed their support for Baghdadi and IS as it has reimagined itself as a global network, rather than a proto state “remaining and expanding” in the Middle East. Most notably, the group that carried out a series of coordinated bombings in Sri Lanka on 21 April had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in advance and was at the very least inspired by the group’s ideology under his leadership.
Baghdadi’s death will undermine the group’s appeal to existing sympathisers, especially as members typically made pledges of allegiance directly to him. His successor’s nom de guerre implies that IS is seeking to burnish his credentials by positioning him as a descendant from the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe. This is seen as a prerequisite for a “caliph” and indicates that IS will continue to portray itself as a “caliphate”. However, little is known about the new leader, and he will likely struggle to achieve the same status as his predecessor.
Big win for Trump
Rumours of Baghdadi’s death have circulated on several occasions in recent years, though have always previously proven to be incorrect. His longevity as leader of IS – and as one of the most wanted men on the planet – is testament to his strict security protocols and the secrecy surrounding his whereabouts. The US-led operation and his death therefore represent significant victories for the Trump administration, especially as US forces are reported to have gathered “highly sensitive material” during the raid. The US will doubtless be hoping that this material will yield further information about IS’s structure that could be used to further degrade its capabilities. However, given the transience of the compound, this is unlikely to be of the scale or utility of the famous “Abbottabad documents” collected during the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden.
In advance of the 2020 US presidential election, the timing is also significant for Trump, who in recent weeks has been under fire for his sudden decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria. This precipitated Turkey’s incursion into the country against Kurdish-led forces, threatening their custody of thousands of imprisoned IS fighters. Reports emerged in mid-October that hundreds of IS prisoners had escaped from camps abandoned by Kurdish forces during the Turkish offensive.
Wait and see
The precise operational impact of Baghdadi’s death is likely to be limited. Baghdadi’s day-to-day role and oversight of military operations has been significantly reduced over the last few years, partly by necessity as power structures became increasingly decentralised following significant military defeats and territorial losses in Iraq and Syria.
According to an August US Department of Defense report, IS still has between 14,000 and 18,000 members in Iraq and Syria. In addition, there are approximately 11,000 fighters and sympathisers held in detention camps. IS’s decentralised command-and-control structure will allow its forces to continue to operate and carry out attacks in north-eastern Syria and in the Nineveh, Diyala, Anbar, Salahaddin and Kirkuk provinces of Iraq.
No death knell for IS
Regardless of the symbolic blow and any potential operational consequences for IS in Iraq and Syria, Baghdadi’s death will not precipitate the demise of the wider movement. IS has already had to pivot towards portraying the war that it is waging as one of attrition that will not be ended by individual military setbacks – or indeed the death of individual leaders. This message is likely to be reinforced in the coming weeks, with propagandists seeking to downplay the significance of Baghdadi’s death in the context of a longer struggle. A captured IS fighter interviewed earlier in 2019 and quoted in UK newspaper The Telegraph stated, “we are fighting for Allah and for the Islamic State, not for any temporary earthly leader”.
Baghdadi’s death is also unlikely to have a significant impact on IS’s global network of affiliates across the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific. Most operate more or less independently from IS central leadership, and do not rely on it for funding or fighters. In some regions, the affiliation of regional IS branches to the organisation’s central leadership is tenuous. They are often driven by local dynamics, and do not necessarily follow the IS strategic playbook.
Furthermore, Baghdadi’s death will likely lead to a spike in the terrorism threat in the coming weeks as homegrown sympathisers in many regions seek revenge, including in Western countries where IS-inspired attacks have dipped in the last two years. In the 31 October audio message, IS’s spokesman warned of vengeance against the US “and their brethren of infidels and apostates”. France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner called on the police to increase vigilance to prevent revenge attacks on 27 October, warning of “the possible intensification of jihadist propaganda”. The British intelligence services are also reported to have stepped up their monitoring of people of interest with suspected connections to IS both in the UK and overseas.
Baghdadi was key to the rift that emerged between al-Qaida and IS for methodological and ideological reasons, and some have speculated that his death could lead to a rapprochement between the two organisations. More likely, al-Qaida will seek to profit from this development to poach supporters and once more stake its claim as the standard bearer for global jihad. Its propogandists have already used the announcement of Baghdadi's death to question the credibility of its caliphate. In Syria in particular, the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) will seek to use Baghdadi’s death as a way to entrench its position in Idlib province ahead of likely Syrian government offensives.