A man like Baghdadi will not be missed
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (IS), is dead. After US special forces raided his safe house in Idlib province in north-west Syria, Baghdadi reportedly fled and detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children. Over the past several years, there have been constant reports of his death, but up until now, none of these reports have been verified.
The death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 did not lead to the end of al-Qaeda, but what does al-Baghdadi’s death mean for IS? Few would predict that al-Baghdadi would rise to such a position of power. He was not noted for being particularly charismatic or memorable. By 2010, al-Baghdadi took control of the group that would be eventually called the Islamic State, a group whose predecessor was Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
By the time al-Baghdadi took over, a rift had grown between the wider al-Qaeda group and IS. To al-Qaeda, Baghdadi was excessively violent and counter-productive to al-Qaeda’s objectives. Extravagant brutality such as beheading Muslims would alienate most Muslims. Al-Qaeda was also alarmed at IS’s predatory strategy of taking territory and resources from other rebel groups. After repeated attempts by al-Qaeda to convince al-Baghdadi to move out of Syria, it officially cut its ties with him in February 2014. Al-Baghdadi believed that al-Qaeda was ineffective, and had failed to set up an actual state.
Declaration of the caliphate
In June 2014, al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance delivering a sermon from a mosque in the recently captured city of Mosul, where he claimed to come from the same tribe as Prophet Muhammad. He also brazenly declared himself to be the caliph -- or the political and religious leader of the Muslim community. Though this declaration was universally rejected by Islamic authorities, his plan of setting up a caliphate attracted thousands of foreign fighters to his cause.
At the height of al-Baghdadi’s power, IS had set up organizational structures across multiple countries and created a de facto state, the size of Belgium with 8 million people living under its control. He established a brutal justice system and legalized slavery. While bin Laden was more concerned with overthrowing modern Arab dictators, eliminating Israel, and knocking over Western symbols of power, al-Baghdadi focused more on reviving the glory of the past.
Fall from power
By 2017, IS’s fortunes started to turn. It had inspired or helped to plan a series of terrorist attacks in Belgium, the US, France, and Turkey that drew increasing resolve from the West to step up efforts to eliminate the group. Iraq’s forces also became more effective against IS, eventually retaking Mosul in 2017.
By March of 2019, IS surrendered its final territorial stronghold in Baghouz, Syria. IS no longer had territory that it could lay claim to, and without territory, it could not claim to be a valid caliphate.
In an attempt to strengthen his standing, al-Baghdadi appeared in a video in April to demonstrate that the group could still exist, even if it lacked territory. His decision not to appear in person was about ensuring his own safety. To avoid being caught, he never used mobile phones and frequently changed safe houses.
What’s next for IS?
For most terrorist groups which are hierarchically organized, the death of a leader signals its demise. In fact, most terrorist groups fall apart within a year of forming once the group has been decapitated. Terrorist groups that are larger and more cellular in structure, such as al-Qaeda, have been able to weather the deaths of leaders, helping to explain the group’s longevity.
The US decision to pull out of Syria has compromised the Kurds, who were managing detention centres holding captured IS fighters. The Turkish advance into Kurdish held territory in north-eastern Syria has led to the escape of several hundreds of IS fighters. The US, however, already claims it has gathered further intelligence from al-Baghdadi’s compound that will continue to weaken IS.
Studies of terrorist groups raise concerns that when one leader dies, the leadership that follows can be less disciplined, more violent, and determined to exact revenge. Given Baghdadi’s penchant for brutality, it’s hard to imagine how that’s possible.
Natasha Lindstaedt is Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex. A version of this article was first published in The Conversation and has been reprinted under special arrangement.