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Wikistrat Special Report on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's Death

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Following the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by US special forces earlier today, we asked Wikistrat's top experts for their analysis of the significance of Baghdadi's death. This special report presents their insights.

Adam Hoffman, Head of Middle East Desk, Wikistrat:

"1. ISIS has been preparing for Al-Baghdadi's death for a long time: Al-Baghdadi's death is a critical symbolic blow against ISIS, but it is unlikely to spell the demise of the group. ISIS has been in the process of transition since mid-2017 after the Iraqi army retook Mosul from the group. The jihadi group likely prepared for Baghdadi's death long ago, given his high profile and the global terrorist threat posed by ISIS.

2. Baghdadi may be succeeded but not replaced: Despite this, it will be hard to replace Baghdadi's figure within ISIS. His education as a religious scholar, experience in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq during the mid-2000s, and his record of having declared the Caliphate had given him a unique status in the Salafi-jihadi movement. While ISIS may have other senior leaders who could replace him, they lack Baghdadi's status and charisma.

3. There's no caliphate without a caliph: Membership in the Islamic State was based on a personal pledge of allegiance (bay' a) to Baghdadi; following his death, it is uncertain how many of ISIS' members and supporters will follow Baghdadi's successor and accept his authority in the same way. Furthermore, ISIS' global affiliates are no longer obligated to hold their allegiance to ISIS, now that Baghdadi is gone.

4. Al-Qaeda may reap the greatest benefits from Baghdadi's death: A key question in the coming days and weeks is how al-Qaeda will react to Baghdadi's death: Will Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's leader, try to coopt ISIS's remaining members, merge the two groups, or attack its affiliates and forces? With the Caliph of the so-called Islamic State gone, al-Qaeda will be in an ideal position to push forward and present itself as the one true leader of the global jihad movement."

Abdul Basit, Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies:

"2019 has been a bad year both for IS and Al-Qaeda. Prior to Baghdadi's killing, Bin Laden's son Hamza Bin Laden who was being groomed as the future of the global jihadist movement, was eliminated in Afghanistan. However, the fight against global jihad remains a work in progress.

Baghdadi's death does not mean the death of IS. Since its' territorial losses in the Middle East, IS has focused on the warfare of narratives and ideological supremacy, highlighting that "the will to wage war is more important than winning the war." A terrorist organization can recover from leadership losses and infrastructural damages; however, cutting off financial sources and countering their ideological narratives weakens them permanently. As long as IS is not ideologically discredited and its extremist narrative, which is still resonating with its worldwide network of supporters, sympathizers, and operatives, is not targeted, the terror group will remain relevant and survive in one form or another."

Barak Barfi, Research Fellow at New America Foundation:

"Al-Baghdadi had long ago delegated his responsibilities to trusted subordinates in expectation of this very day. He was never the charismatic leader in the mold of al-Qaeda founder Usama bin Laden who could mobilize tens of millions of Muslims.

As such, al-Baghdadi's likely demise is more symbolic than tangible. He emerged in Mosul in July 2014 to declare an Islamic caliphate, the first since the fall of the Abbasids following the Mongol invasion of 1258. Within five years, it crumbled under the weight of American might. Like in Afghanistan and Iraq, jihadists proved they could not defeat an American juggernaut that rules the world.

Al-Baghdadi's death demonstrates the importance of allies at a time when America's leaders cast aspersions on their values. The operation leading to the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi originated in the military's interrogation of captured insurgents. Bin Laden's demise was due to superb intelligence work by CIA analysts, but, according to initial reports, the intelligence leading to the discovery of al-Baghdadi's hiding place came from the interrogation of an ISIS member by Iraqi security services."

Dr. Theodore Karasik, Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics, a geostrategic consultancy based in Washington, DC:

"Baghdadi's death feels good for now, but it doesn't get rid of the movement nor the ideologies, which live on, just as we saw with bin Laden. Focusing on the death of a leader and a terrorist group is, of course, important, but the blow is perceived in different ways by Daesh itself. The implications for the region remain the same with the group expanding despite the use of CT to limit their activity."

Dr. Mitchell Belfer, President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (Rome, Italy) and Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Terrorism, and Security at the Metropolitan University, Prague:

"The targeted assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should be greeted with cautious celebrations since its impact will be limited in terms of the overall operational capabilities of Daesh—not least in theaters beyond Syria and Iraq. Since the destruction of territorial Daesh, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi attempted — unsuccessfully — to rebrand his leadership from a religious figurehead to a guerrilla warrior. In that latter role, he polarized Daesh's military forces and caused a splintering. This led to an internal coup attempt earlier this year and forced him deeper underground. As with most terrorist organizations, underground leaders make decision-making more difficult, and vacuums tend to open. In this case, it seems that someone from his inner circle conspired with Turkey, which itself partnered with the US, to locate and kill al-Baghdadi.

For the crimes he committed and oversaw, this form of retribution is welcome and should be celebrated. In the Gulf — and beyond — the killing of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi also helps to tarnish the image of the omnipotent Daesh and will reduce its ability to recruit. But who comes next? The race to fill the leadership gap will be swift and likely smooth. The two candidates — if they are still alive — are Abu Ahmad al-Alwani (Head of Daesh's Hisbah) or Abu Jandal al-Masri (who heads the Information section) who are both well respected within Daesh and feared on the battlefield. In the Gulf, there is optimism—but it's guarded. The war against Daesh needs to continue unabated."

Dr. Rebecca Molloy, Senior Analyst, Wikistrat:

"The death of Baghdadi, if confirmed, would be a "huge blow," but, like the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in 2011, it will not spell out ISIS's strategic defeat. The confirmation of Baghdadi's death in the operation would be used by several regional and global actors:

  1. Distraction for the Trump administration from the disastrous Syria withdrawal earlier this month, particularly the perception that the US abandon's its allies in the region.

  2. As information drips in regarding the intel on Baghdadi's location, a picture is emerging of cooperation with Iraqi intelligence, as well as the SDF. The commander of the Kurdish-led SDF, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, tweeted "for five months there has been joint intel cooperation on the ground and accurate monitoring until we achieved a joint operation to kill Abu Bakir al-Bagdadi." Turkish forces were apparently given advance notice, but it is not clear yet whether Ankara had shared the intelligence that led to the operation.

  3. Idlib is the only province held by the opposition to Bashar al-Assad and is controlled by a variety of rebel groups. The dominant military power is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is loosely tied to al-Qaeda. Baghdadi's death could boost HTS and be a boon to Zawahiri and the al-Qaeda network."

Dr. Tim Furnish, Writer, Analyst and Adjunct Professor at Reinhardt Univerity:

"If ISIS' Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is indeed dead, as US President Donald Trump had reported, the following strike me as some of the most important ramifications:

  1. The organization's devolution from a territorial state to a transnational terrorist group, already in process, will accelerate for two main reasons: With not just the Caliphate but now the Caliph himself is gone, ISIS lacks a central rallying and guiding entity and even if a successor caliph is found and declared, he will lack the charisma of al-Baghdadi, making the centrifugal forces acting on ISIS more powerful than the unifying centripetal ones.

  2. Apocalyptic/eschatological groups, such as ISIS, have, throughout Islamic history, gone through three phases of rise and decline: preaching revivalist propaganda in opposition; forming a renegade military theocracy; and then seizing power and forming (or taking over) a territorial state which, eventually, declines or is defeated. ISIS had reached phase 3, losing the Caliphate, but with al-Baghdadi alive, they regressed to phase 2; and now, with him dead, they are relegated to phase 1. The international community needs to work to make sure they don't rise above that level, ever again.

  3. ISIS remains, however, an eschatological movement dedicated to preparing the way for the coming of the (Sunni) Mahdi. It's thus enamored with "hotwiring the apocalypse," and this fervent belief will not end with the death of the Caliph."

Dr. Farhan Zahid, Terrorism and Security Analyst and contributing analyst at Wikistrat:

"The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a Delta Force raid in Idlib is yet another great victory for the intelligence community in the US as it was an Intelligence Based Operation (IBO). On the other hand, it's another big blow for the global jihad movement, that is to say for both Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Earlier this year, Al-Qaeda lost Hamza Bin Laden, an heir apparent to Al-Qaeda and, most recently, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) lost its Emir Asim Umar in the Helmand province of Afghanistan during a joint raid by Afghan and US security forces. AQIS is the local chapter of Al-Qaeda for perpetrating acts of terrorism in Afghanistan and South Asia.

Apart from these swashbuckling performances, all is not lost. Renowned terrorism expert and scholar Professor Bruce Hoffman has already predicted a merger of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the near future. This may be the moment when broken and demoralized cadres of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State endeavor to join hands together after a break of six years. It was in 2013 when Al-Qaeda Emir Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri expelled Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the ranks of Al-Qaeda after an utter disregard of Zawahiri's directions to work with Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of Jahbat al-Nusra.

It may also help Al-Qaeda's South Asia chapter which is in utter disarray after the killing of its Emir. Al-Qaeda has always had strong roots in South Asia in general and particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan where the movement was born and it still poses a threat to security. At this critical juncture, it would be too early to predict any merger or alliance, but the thing which is evidently of note is the weakening of both global jihad organizations amid leadership losses. There is a strong possibility that both organizations could establish liaisons and working relationships at the very least."


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