Illustration: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a sermon in the Great Mosque in Mosul (YouTube, July 5, 2014) [Screenshot of IS group propaganda video]
The killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi by an elite American force is a serious blow to ISIS. A charismatic, authoritarian leader, he was the dominant figure in the ISIS leadership.
His uniqueness was his unsuccessful attempt — the first of its kind — to establish an Islamic Caliphate here and now, which would restore to Islam the glory of its beginnings. Moreover, Al-Baghdadi had the final word regarding military, religious, and governmental issues, and the ISIS leadership was completely dependent on him.
In our assessment, following his killing ISIS can be expected to weaken but not collapse, because it still has strategic assets that enable it to continue operating in Syria, Iraq, and around the globe. ISIS may find it difficult to continue operating as a global hierarchical organization, and its existing tendency to decentralize may increase.
On October 27, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that an elite American force had carried out a night raid in which ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi was killed. Several operatives were killed with him, apparently senior ISIS operatives whose names will be made public in the coming days. Some of his family members were also killed.
The American media reported that the raid included air strikes and air landings of special forces from helicopters. According to reports, Al-Baghdadi blew himself up in a tunnel using an explosive belt after he realized the American forces were closing in on him. So far ISIS has not formally responded to Al-Baghdadi's killing.
The Significance of Al-Baghdadi’s Killing
Although ISIS did in fact suffer a serious blow with Al-Baghdadi's killing, it likely will continue to exist and operate in Syria, Iraq, and around the world as a global terrorist organization.
ISIS's continuing existence and activities are made possible thanks to four important strategic assets still in ISIS's possession:
Asset number 1: The organization's Salafist-jihadi ideology. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is dead, but the Salafist-jihadi ideology is alive and kicking in the Middle East and in the Muslim communities around the globe. The ideology will continue to attract young Muslims not only in Iraq and Syria, but in other countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and also in Western countries.
Asset number 2: The existence of a broad military infrastructure in both of ISIS's core countries: Syria and Iraq. The regimes in Syria and Iraq find it difficult to uproot the infrastructure because they have a low level of governance, there are rifts between various sects and communities (especially between Shi'ites and Sunnis), and they are exposed to power struggles between regional and global powers. The weakness of the Kurdish military force (SDF) caused by Turkey's invasion of Syria is liable to increase ISIS's freedom of action in eastern and northern Syria. In addition, the Iraqi regime has chronic difficulties in functioning, which will make it easy for ISIS to regain its strength in western and northern Iraq, regions with Sunni populations.
Asset number 3: The establishment of ISIS provinces in several African and Asian countries, especially in Nigeria, the Sinai Peninsula, and Afghanistan. The local regimes find it difficult to uproot the local ISIS networks and carry out an ongoing campaign against them, which so far has been without decisive results — not even in Egypt, where the regime is more effective than in other countries where ISIS is active.
Past experience has shown that after ISIS received a serious blow in Syria and Iraq it made an effort to increase its activities in its other provinces, while weakening the ties between the various provinces and the ISIS leadership in Syria and Iraq.
Asset number 4: A vast media empire that has continued functioning, even after the blows inflicted on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In our assessment, ISIS's media empire, which has received many setbacks, may be damaged but will survive and continue to serve as an important ISIS asset even after the death of Al-Baghdadi. It will continue spreading ISIS's ideology of preserving the concept of the Caliphate state, continuing jihad against ISIS's various enemies, and encouraging terrorist attacks against the West. Beyond the battle for hearts and minds, ISIS's media will continue playing an operative role in preserving the ties between the new leadership and the provinces, recruiting operatives and raising funds.
In our assessment, these four strategic assets will enable ISIS to continue operating as a global terrorist organization, regardless of the setbacks of the past two years (the loss of the Islamic State, the conquest of its strongholds in the Euphrates Valley, and the killing of its leader). After Al-Baghdadi's heir establishes himself, ISIS may rehabilitate itself and become strong once again as it did in 2010 after the death of its leaders in Iraq.
The Question of Al-Baghdadi's Succession
In order to prevent a leadership vacuum ISIS will have to act quickly to choose Al-Baghdadi’s successor. However, in the absence of a dominant, authoritarian figure who is obviously considered Al-Baghdadi's natural successor, power struggles may ensue within ISIS's ranks between prominent operatives, which could prolong the process.
Following Al-Baghdadi's death there were news items about several candidates who might replace him. One of the names mentioned was Muhammad Sayid Abd Al-Rahman Mula, also known as Haji Abdallah or Abdallah Qardash. He is an Iraqi of Turkman origin who was close to Al-Baghdadi, and was an officer in Iraqi military intelligence during the regime of Saddam Hussein and later a senior religious figure in Al-Qaeda.
Like Al-Baghdadi, he was imprisoned in Iraq by the American army because of his links to Al-Qaeda. Haji Abdallah and Al-Baghdadi were imprisoned together in the Camp Bucca Detention Center in Basra.
The killing of Al-Baghdadi is liable to lead to attempts to carry out retribution attacks in the various arenas where ISIS operates. They may be carried out by ISIS operatives and supporters around the globe (ISIS-inspired attacks).
The objective of the attacks may be to send the message that ISIS is alive and well and continues to operate, despite the blow it suffered with the death of its leader.
Targets with high priority are liable to be those affiliated with the West, whether in Western countries themselves or targets identified with them around the globe — like the series of suicide bombing attacks in Sri Lanka. The upcoming Christmas season may be given priority for such terrorist retribution attacks.
Click here to view a PDF version of this article including an appendix on ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. This article is reprinted with permission of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC).
ITIC was established in 2002 as part of the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center (IICC), a national site dedicated to the memory of the fallen of the Israeli intelligence community. The ITIC, located near Gelilot north of Tel Aviv, is directed by (Col. Ret.) Dr. Reuven Erlich. The ITIC’s objective is to collect, study, and disseminate information mainly about terrorism and intelligence. Click here to read more of ITIC's work in The Jerusalem Herald.