The Death of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi: what future for IS?

The Death of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi: what future for IS?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of the self-declared Islamic State, died the night between 26th and the 27th of October 2019 at the age of 48 being the most wanted terrorist on earth. Notwithstanding the pervasive manhunt to catch him, the leader was able to resist, leading the terroristic organisation since 2010.


The Islamic State Leadership and strategy: Visibility vs Secrecy

In 2014, when IS (or Daesh) had its geographical and media peak, was clear that a strategic way the organisation used to demonstrate its strength was also the one of showing a powerful leadership. Together with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the most well-known members were  Abu Muhammad al Adnani who was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s spokesman and second in command  and, the deputies of Iraq and Syria franchises, respectively, Abu Muslim al Turkmani and Abu Ali al Anbari. By June 2019 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was the only survivor as the military defeats hit also IS chain of command, killing many of his trusted men. After the collapse of Daesh as a territorial subject the flow of information about its leadership drastically diminished. The Islamic State has decided to return to a regime of almost absolute secrecy – as was the case before 2013 – in which the names of the commanders were mostly hidden and eulogies were rare[1].

It is important to notice that Salafi-Jihadi terroristic organisations as Daesh operate in secrecy to preserve themselves. On the other side, they need visibility in order to keep the relationship with their followers, as much as to reach their political and strategic goals. In this dilemma between secrecy and visibility al-Baghdadi always preferred the secrecy.  Since the beginning, the role of the “Khilafa” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was not exposed as the al-Qai’da’s Osama Bin Laden  (deceased in 2011). However, while IS military defeat was getting real, the leader appeared twice. The first time was in April 29th through an 18 minutes video and the second in September 16th  with a recording of around 30 minutes. Considering that before these occasions Baghdadi appeared only in the famous video showing the sermon at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri (destroyed in 2017) in Mosul, Iraq during  the proclamation of the Caliphate on July 4, 2014[2] this new exposure, has to be seen as an extraordinary event.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in Idlib

This premise is useful to understand one of the most shaking events that hit IS in its core: the death of its leader. Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi blown himself up in an underground tunnel while was escaping the US mission targeting him in the night between the 26th and the 27th of October. In the explosion the leader brought his children who also died. His death occurred in the governorate of Idlib which is very curious as Baghdadi was thought to be in Iraq or at most, at the boundaries between Syria and Iraq, while actually he was located in the village of Barisha in northwest Syria, few kilometres far from the Turkish borders. This is pretty surprising as Idlib is controlled by a coalition of insurgents especially Qa’idist military forces, as the Foreign Policy’s Journalist Turkstov was reporting in late September of this year.

Among these coalitions the most relevant is the so called Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is a fierce enemy of IS as in the previous months also executed some of its members. On the other hand, some experts also thought that the “Khalifa” was there to forge in person a new peace with Qai’dists[3]. In retrospect, it is possible to look at the recent Baghdadi media exposure in Daesh’s propaganda as a decision to raise the spirit of the organisation presumably assuming greater risks. It remains to be seen whether this increased media exposure has actually endangered his safety[4].

Baghdadi’s death undoubtedly constitutes a very hard blow for the Daesh. Anyway, it is very unlikely it will determine its decline nor its end. However, for sure the one that get out victorious from this operation is the Trump presidency and, more in general, the US presidencies in the whole “War on Terror” following the death Abu Musab Zarqawi during Bush in 2006 and especially the Osama bin Laden’s end in 2011 with Obama. In any case, all these military successes didn’t prove any disintegration of the respective terrorist organizations.

The question of succession: a new Caliph

According to Abdel Bari Atwan: “The assassination of Bin Laden was fatal for al-Qai’da, but Baghdadi’s death could breathe new life into Isis”. In fact, conversely to al-Qai’da, Daesh was not revolving around its leader, but mostly relied on the ideologies: an extreme form of Wahhabis, whose uncompromising nature enhanced its appeal for alienated Islamic youth, and managed to develop franchises in at least 18 countries in the Middle East[5]. However the consequences of this episode strongly depend on how the new “Caliph” role will be managed. The official nomination was made known thorugh an audio recording of almost 8 minutes whereby the new leader Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, is officially nominated as a consequence of his predecessor’s death. The choice was made from the shura council respecting the (alleged) will of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi[6].

This new announcement represents on one hand, a potential incentive to strengthen militants’ motivation but on the other hand fails to be charismatic.  The use of an audio recording, instead of a video, where the new leader is not speaking, gives a pervasive sense of vagueness thus limits the forcefulness.

The new leader battle name Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi  has some interesting points. The Hashemite lineage of the Arab Quraish tribe, to which Prophet Muhammad belonged stands out at first. According to a tradition of legitimacy in Islam, also during the historical empires, the caliphs should belong to this tribe as they were considered to be Prophet successors. As Baghdadi before, also Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, seems has the intention to spotlight this religious credential. At this point the “caliphate” owns the element to continue with its project. However, contrary to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the name there is no reference to the geographical origin of the leader (Baghdadi meant “from Baghdad”) nor the name belongs to the  four rightly guided caliphs or Rashidun (Abu Bakr, the first successor of Prophet Muhammad who ruled from 632-634).

To conclude, the IS leader loss and its succession of a new “caliph”, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, are undoubtedly very salient news, but their concrete effects are still difficult to predict and may not necessarily be disastrous for the fate of the so-called Islamic State[7].


 

References:

Atwan, A. B. (2019, November 10). The assassination of Bin Laden was fatal for al-Qaeda, but Baghdadi’s death could breathe new life into Isis. The Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/badhdadi-death-isis-middle-east-syria-terrorism-trump-a9197226.html

Baker, P. Schmitt, E. Cooper, H. (2019, October 27). ISIS Leader al-Baghdadi is dead, Trump says. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/27/us/politics/isis-leader-al-baghdadi-dead.html

Callimachi, R. Schmitt, E. (2019, October 31).  ISIS Names New Leader and Confirms al-Baghdadi’s Death. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/world/middleeast/isis-al-baghdadi-dead.html

Caffarella, J. Wallace, B. Zhou, J. ISIS’S second comeback: assessing the next ISIS insurgency. (2019). Report of the Institute for the Study of War: Executive Summary. Retrieved from: http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20ISIS%27s%20Second%20Comeback%20-%20June%202019.pdf

Coles, I. Malisin, J. Strobe W. P. (2019, October 27). Death of Baghdadi Unlikely to End the Insurgency He Led. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/death-of-baghdadi-unlikely-to-end-the-insurgency-he-led-11572211479

Gardner, F. (2019, October 29). Baghdadi death: What now for IS? The BBC. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50208793

Hellyer, H. A. (2019). What Did—and Did Not—Happen With the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved from Carnegie Endowment Website: https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/31/what-did-and-did-not-happen-with-death-of-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-pub-80252

Hennigan, W. J. Karlvick (2019, November 31). What the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Says About the War That Killed Him. Time. Retrieved from: https://time.com/5714753/al-baghdadi-death-iraq-war-analysis/

Hincks, J. ( 2019, November 1). A New ISIS Recording Names al-Baghdadi’s Successor. Here’s What to Know About the New Leader. Time. Retrieved from: https://time.com/5716061/isis-leader-baghdadi-hashimi-al-quarashi/

Marone F. (2019). La morte di al-Baghdadi e il futuro del “califfato”. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/la-morte-di-al-baghdadi-e-il-futuro-del-califfato-24262

Marone F. (2019). L’ISIS tra segretezza e visibilità, il nuovo audio di al-Baghdadi. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/lisis-tra-segretezza-e-visibilita-il-nuovo-audio-di-al-baghdadi-23941

Marone F. (2019). La testa dell’idra: il nuovo leader dell’ISIS. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/la-testa-dellidra-il-nuovo-leader-dellisis-24297 

Ranieri, D. (2019). The Islamic State’s Leadership Today [Commentary]. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/islamic-states-leadership-today-23400

Tsurkov, E. (2019, September 2019). Idlib Faces a Fearsome Future: Islamist Rule or Mass Murder. The Foreign Policy. Retrieved from: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/19/idlib-faces-a-fearsome-future-islamist-rule-or-mass-murder-syria-civil-war-hayat-tahrir-al-sham/

 

[1] Ranieri, D. (2019). The Islamic State’s Leadership Today [Commentary]. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/islamic-states-leadership-today-23400

[2] Marone F. (2019). L’ISIS tra segretezza e visibilità, il nuovo audio di al-Baghdadi. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/lisis-tra-segretezza-e-visibilita-il-nuovo-audio-di-al-baghdadi-23941

[3] Baker, P. Schmitt, E. Cooper, H. (2019, October 27). ISIS Leader al-Baghdadi is dead, Trump says. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/27/us/politics/isis-leader-al-baghdadi-dead.html

[4] Marone F. (2019). La testa dell’idra: il nuovo leader dell’ISIS. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/la-testa-dellidra-il-nuovo-leader-dellisis-24297 

[5] Atwan, A. B. (2019, November 10). The assassination of Bin Laden was fatal for al-Qaeda, but Baghdadi’s death could breathe new life into Isis. The Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/badhdadi-death-isis-middle-east-syria-terrorism-trump-a9197226.html

[6] Marone F. (2019). La testa dell’idra: il nuovo leader dell’ISIS. ISPI. Retrieved from ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/la-testa-dellidra-il-nuovo-leader-dellisis-24297

[7] Ibidem.


Photo:A bearded man with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s appearance speaks in this screen grab taken from video released on April 29, 2019. Islamic State Group/Al Furqan Media Network/Reuters TV via REUTERS. 


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Giulia Macario

Nata in Italia, attualmente studia Ricerca Avanzata in Criminologia Internazionale (IMARC) presso l’Erasmus University e la Kent University. Precedentemente ha vissuto un anno in Giordania, ad Amman, dove ha lavorato come ricercatrice e tirocinante presso “Arab Institute for Security Studies” (ACSIS) e dove ha studiato la lingua araba presso Qasid Institute. Nel 2018 ha iniziato il Master in Middle Eastern Studies (MIMES) offerto dall’ Alta Scuola di Economia e Relazioni Internazionali (ASERI - Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore) a Milano. La sua tesi “WMD, al-Qa'ida and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan: response to Violent Extremism” analizza la Giordania come caso studio nella difesa attuata contro l’estremismo violento, sia dal punto di vista strategico militare che dal punto di vista della contro-narrativa, prevenzione e riabilitazione. Nel 2017 ha ottenuto due diplomi presso l'Istituto per gli di Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI) in "Geopolitica e Sicurezza Globale" e "Crisi ed Emergenza Umanitaria". Precedentemente ha conseguito la laurea in Studi Internazionali all' Università di Trento con una tesi intitolata "I media nella galassia jihadista: Analisi e comparazione dei magazines di al-Qa ‘ida e delle Stato Islamico". Giulia è interessata particolarmente ai movimenti salafiti-jihadisti, all'islam politico con una particolare attenzione alla prevenzione e alla lotta contro l'estremismo violento e il terrorismo

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