28 October 2019

Al-Baghdadi’s death. The “Islamic State”, where to?

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Peculiar to his style, the American president has announced the death of the leader of “Islamic State from Iraq and Levant” (ISIL), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a tweet. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward”, stated Trump about al-Baghdadi, within the press conference, on Sunday morning. The American forces’ raid, conducted on Saturday, lead to the death of the ISIL leader. According to the information made publicly, he detonated a suicide when he was about to be captured.

Image source: Mediafax

One more completed phase in the fight against terrorism

In the end, the death of the ISIS leader is just an important phase in the fight against this terrorist organization and the groups associated to it. We could actually state that this death should be rather seen as a “political victory”, than an operational one, especially given that the al-Baghdadi’s death comes soon after the US forces withdrew from Syria.

But how much does al-Baghdadi’s death count in the fight against terrorism and ISIL?

In all these 18 years of fighting against terrorism, things evolved significantly. But these changes were not all positive things, like admitting the “virtues” of terror’s leader, ISIL’s leader. Abu al-Baghdadi was never like Osama Bin Laden, even if ISIL managed to do more than al-Qaida, having, for quite some time, a Caliphate with a controlled territory. Abu al-Baghdadi was hate’s preacher. He was the instigator and influencer of some of the most outrageous violent acts ever posted on social media. He was an evasive fugitive, stalked by drones, only once seen in public (July 2014, Mosul) and a few times seen in video messages. The preacher of a “broken” Islam, who found his supporters among a religious minority. Al-Baghdadi’s public presence was always limited, as he was not at all a charismatic person. Moreover, coalition’s pressure on ISIL allowed the rival group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to get an advantage and, lately, overcome ISIL. Previously, HTS’s name was Jahbat al-Nusra (a group in Syria associated to al-Qaida) and it was led by the former deputy and rival of al-Baghdadi, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who returned during ISIL’s withdrawal.

Why now?

As I was mentioning earlier, the death of the ISIL leader comes soon after the US forces withdrawal from Syria. This coincidence raises some questions:

1. Was the US withdrawal just a “bait” to give the ISIL leader the feeling of pressure’s decrease? Did al-Baghdadi feel “free” to go in and out on the Syrian space to get rid of a possible pressure of other forces opposed to ISIL or did he want a better location wherefrom to lead the ISIL makeover?

2. Why was al-Baghdadi in North of Idlib, close to the border with Turkey? The area the ISIL leader was found in is strongly dominated by HTS. Most likely, the tactical evolution have pushed al-Baghdadi in this location. But, was not Osama Bin Laden also found in Abottabad, close to a Pakistani military base? Maybe al-Baghdadi played “luck’s card” and went to an area where he thought no one will ever look for him.

Al- Baghdadi is dead. Who is going to lead ISIL now?

The death of the terrorist groups’ leaders is important and has consequences on the current actions of the central and associated groups, depending on the independence level on the “mother” organization. Just like al-Qaida, we can state that ISIL is organized on four levels:

- the first level is the nucleus or the “mother” organization;

-the second level is represented by the associated groups;

-the third level is composed of the people or groups embracing the ISIL ideology;

-and, finally, the fourth level is represented by supporters’ group, offering financial or material help to the nucleus or the associated organizations.

A 2018 study made by the RAND corporation reveals that not the death of terrorist organization’s leader is the element that will eventually lead to its destruction, but the loss of support from the people in the territories they are controlling.

Therefore, we can state that the West or, in other words, the states within the anti-ISIL coalition, should better identify what they should do next. Just like the Osama Bin Laden or other of this organization’s leaders, the death of the head involves the ascension of others, who will take organization’s message and actions. In some cases, the leadership goes in the hands of a leader of the associated group. As for ISIL, the anti-ISIL focus could move in Africa or South-East Asia. After the death of Osama Bin Laden, in 2011, many medium leaders moved and conducted their actions without following the order of the second leader of al-Qaida. Now, the main question is how ISIL will evolve, now that it does not have a caliphate state or a leader?

For ISIL’s supporters, spread all around the world, connected to organization’s ideology through the Internet, ISIL and its leaders became harder and harder to access. ISIL members, regardless of the position they had, were pushed to social media. Given that ISIL’s media was seriously affected by the anti-ISIL coalition’s actions, the message of the organization became extremely vague and, from time to time, was “revived” by al-Baghdadi’s appearances on social media. Therefore, al-Baghdadi’s image was blurred and he almost disappeared as leader. ISIL’s actions and of other associated groups are suggesting that al-Baghdadi had small operational control of his forces.

Most likely, al-Baghdadi’s death will not change things a lot in ISIL’s operational spectrum, nor in the associated groups from Africa and Asia, but it will definitely mark the symbolic “death” of the organization which wanted to recreate the Caliphate. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi managed to accomplish what bin Laden always wanted to, but could not- to self-declare being a caliph (descendent of Mohammed). The establishment of a caliphate and the self-proclamation as caliph gave al-Baghdadi power, inspired and radicalized many online supporters and attracted an unpreceded number of foreign fighters.

As for al-Qaida, the international community has celebrated but, at the same time, has looked at the future worryingly, afraid of group’s members’ reprisals.

In terms of ISIL, the US and the West should indeed revise the terrorist warnings rates, to prevent the execution of a major attack, although the stake may not be that big this time. However, it is still unclear how many “jihadists” will mourn and how many will want revenge. The 2019 terrorism scene is nothing like 2009’s one. The attention should be on the “lonely wolfs”, but also on foreign fighters, trained by ISIL, who will be the major issue for the next decade.

The Africa and Asia groups will be less affected by the death of al-Baghdadi and will continue to go for the objectives they have on their agenda, as the connection with ISIL and al-Baghdadi was rather symbolic, because the logistic support and funding were mainly local.

Translated by Andreea Soare