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Islamic State Without al-Baghdadi: Disjointed or as Dangerous as Ever?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
A picture taken on October 28, 2019, shows Syrian artist Aziz al-Asmar (C) posing with relatives near a mural he painted in the town of Binnish in the northwestern Idlib province, depicting US President Donald Trump directing the “play” of killing Islamic State (IS) group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. Photo: Muhammad HAJ KADOUR / AFP ©AFP ⁃ Muhammad HAJ KADOUR

The leader of jihadist group Islamic State (IS) was killed in a raid by US forces on 27 October 2019. The news has since been confirmed by IS itself and a new leader announced.

The development was praised as further progress towards wearing down the group that has spread terror in Iraq and Syria and beyond. Yet analysts and officials warn against complacency, describing the various factors that could influence the group’s trajectory from here.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi, was the self-declared ‘caliph’ of ISIS, which controlled large swathes of Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017. It has since lost much of its power and territory thanks to efforts in Syria by US forces backed by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and in Iraq by the army and Iran-supported militias.

The notorious IS leader was killed during a raid on his compound in north-western Syria. Describing the moments leading up to his death, the head of US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, said that al-Baghdadi “crawled into a hole with two small children and blew himself up while his people stayed on the ground”.

Al-Baghdadi had been in hiding for five years prior to his demise. Already replaced, his influence on the global terror outfit has not been lost on analysts. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that al-Baghdadi’s background as an Iraqi-born Islamic scholar meant he was received by both radical elements and Iraqi nationalists who served in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party security apparatus. He also decentralized the organization, ensuring its longevity and enabling it to function without him or any other commander-in-chief.

Al-Baghdadi’s replacement, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, is a former Baathist army officer, but little else is known about him.

HA Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the name Qurayshi would have been picked to suggest descent from Prophet Muhammad’s tribe and show followers it is respecting the tradition.

IS also lost its spokesperson, Abu Hasan al-Muhajir, in an air strike a day after al-Baghdadi was killed. He has been replaced by Abu Hamza al-Qarshi. Al-Qarshi was quick to assume his role, issuing a new recording on the group’s website, warning the group had not been killed with its former leader. “Do you not realize that the State today is not only on the doorstep of Europe and in the centre of Africa, it is staying and expanding from the east to the west,” he said.

McKenzie acknowledged that US security forces were under “no illusions” the group was going away, stating, “Their actions may be a little disjointed. They will be dangerous. We expect they will try some sort of retribution attack. We’re postured and prepared for that.”

Reports suggest al-Baghdadi’s death is likely to cause IS to splinter, and the new leader may need to synergize the group again.

Since losing in Syria, the group has conducted guerrilla attacks rather than claiming territory through large-scale offensives, but al-Baghdadi’s last message stated that daily operations were still taking place and that the US was losing elsewhere such as in Afghanistan. Known as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), Afghanistan’s branch of the outfit has been on the rise and has caused over a thousand civilian deaths, targeting minorities in the country. But it lacks support from its main rival, the Taliban. The group is also said to lack strength in other countries in which it operates such as Nigeria, Libya and Egypt.

In Iraq, however, a Pentagon report published in August noted that a stable ‘command and control node’ remained and was resurging in Syria. It also retains an intensive and international effort to recruit fighters through social media.

Moreover, the grievances that first gave IS a foothold in Iraq still exist. Some 300,000 residents are still homeless, for instance, and reconstruction efforts are frustrated by local politicians who hold out for kickbacks. Mass protests against corruption and mismanagement resulted in 250 civilian deaths in October, with hundreds more injured as the country once again teeters on the brink of instability.

However, former Iraqi government adviser Robert Tollast does not see IS resurging in Iraq in the immediate term, with local animosity prevailing against it particularly among tribesmen who have administered collective punishment of communities thought to have helped them.

Michael Knights agrees that in the short-term IS is finished, but fears it could re-emerge among the children of the group’s members, both local and foreign. Many of these youngsters are now confined in so-called refugee camps like al-Hol in Syria, which commentators say is a breeding ground for future radicals.

The overcrowded camp has encountered a number of problems controlling its residents. Following the withdrawal of US troops from the region, the situation in the camp and its potential fallout has become even more precarious.

Before his death, al-Baghdadi reportedly said he wanted to target camps and prisons holding displaced Syrians and Iraqis, which could make the camps vulnerable, said Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, speaking to a congressional committee.

Having US forces in the region was crucial to capturing al-Baghdadi, according to Michael Waltz, a Republican lawmaker and former Army Green Beret. “We must keep IS from returning by staying on offence,” he said.

The United Nations estimated in 2018 that up to 30,000 IS fighters were still active in Syria and Iraq. Now, Travers said, there are more than 18,000 fighters on the loose looking for a direction to regroup. The security vacuum left by Turkey’s invasion of Syria in early October and the US withdrawal has already been exploited through prison breaks, with two out of every four attempts in Syria being successful in one month. On 11 October, five people fled a detention centre in Qamishli and 850 escaped the Ain Issa camp on 13 October.

Without its caliphate, however, IS may have lost much of its appeal, according to Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, which it is trying to compensate for by using “narratives of revenge” to induce support.

This may lead to opportunistic attacks in the short term to prove the group’s relevance. The Turkish invasion may also give it a chance to capitalize on its revival efforts.

Ultimately, whether IS will regain the formidable reputation it once had is an open question. Its ideology is still attractive to many, and the world will have to remain vigilant.

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