A few weeks ago, former ISIS leader al-Baghdadi was assassinated by the US Government. His followers, infamous pledges of loyalty, were centered around the leader as an individual instead of to the organization, which begs the question: what does al-Baghdadi’s death mean for ISIS? To answer that question, we must first review the history of the region.
“What does the history of ISIS tell us about the future?”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), like other Islamic fundamentalist groups, has complex historical ties that help explain their creation and rise to prominence in the Middle East. Specifically, for ISIS, these roots can be traced back to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before evolving into what is known as the Islamic State, the group was allied with Al-Qaeda. With differing objectives, the groups began to sever following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Al Qaeda officially disassociated with the Islamic State in February of 2014, and in June of that year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph of the Islamic State, with clear state-building aspirations. Shortly after, the Islamic State began to take control of territory in Iraq and Syria, including large cities like Mosul and Raqqa. The group reached their height in terms of territorial strongholds in 2015.
“Why was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi significant?”
Rising to prominence in the Islamic State, Baghdadi claimed to be a descendent from the Quraishi tribe, therefore related to the Prophet Muhammad and a prerequisite for becoming a caliph. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi was part of the Iraqi resistance against the Americans. He was captured and sent to Camp Bucca before being quickly released. Camp Bucca played a pivotal role in the evolvement of the Islamic State. In the southern part of Iraq, bordering Kuwait, Camp Bucca provided an opportunity for secular Ba’athist party members and Jihadists to organize together. Baghdadi and at least nine other members of the Islamic State’s top leadership were imprisoned there. Baghdadi was only imprisoned from January until December of 2004.
Largely absent from the public eye as caliph, Baghdadi only appeared in two videos from 2014 until his recent death. On October 26th, 2019, Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest after being cornered by US forces in Idlib, Syria. He killed himself and his three small children to evade capture. The US team was led by Delta Force, a branch of the Army, with support from the CIA and local Kurdish forces.
“What’s next for ISIS?”
In the wake of Baghdadi’s death, military and intelligence communities speculate on the future of ISIS. Throughout the height of the Islamic State, Baghdadi’s followers were known for calling public phone numbers and declaring their loyalty to the caliph, as opposed to ISIS, before committing attacks. How would a new leader change the group’s methods and objectives? The continued struggle for Western counterinsurgency efforts may not be against the “Islamic State” per say, but the global Jihad movement is nowhere near over. They will continue to face decentralized organizations, like ISIS, across the Middle East, Africa, South and East Asia with the capability to reach Europe and the US. Drawing on a large array of expert analysis, the following are potential outcomes and things to watch for with the Islamic State and its new leader:
- Reunification: Despite their dramatic break of ties in 2014, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State could reunify. The split had more to do with conflicting leadership personalities than it had to do with the two groups ideologies. (Link)
- Fractures: within the general membership of the Islamic State could take place. As Baghdadi was largely a cult-like leader, anyone or any small group within the Islamic State can argue that their loyalty died with the leader. (Link)
- Conflict Downsizing: Because the end of the Syrian civil war does not look promising, a long-term situation characterized by low-intensity conflict is likely with the Islamic State still operating out of small pockets in the country. This is theoretically known as conflict downsizing instead of conflict resolution. (Link)
- Increased Recruitment: The strategy of leadership decapitation that many Western counterterrorism strategies employ is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Studies show that this strategy rarely results in organizational collapse, and instead leads to an increase in recruitment and mortality rates for those in the organization. This was shown in the 2011 assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (Link)
“Who is Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi?”
The future of ISIS and the ways in which they will continue to cause conflict and terror in the region and abroad is largely unknown. However, they recently named a new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, confirming that the military approach of leadership decapitation was not successful in crippling the Islamic State. Not much is known about the new leader in the intelligence community, and this may be why he was chosen. The coming weeks and months of his leadership reveal what the Islamic State looks like after Baghdadi and how this will impact the Middle East and the world.