President Donald Trump confirmed at a 9 AM press conference Sunday morning that the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed in a U.S. raid in northern Syria about eighteen hours earlier. This brings to an end Al-Baghdadi’s eight-and-a-half-year reign atop the terrorist group. A number of issues surrounding the complicated politics of the Syrian war and the West’s role therein are raised by the circumstances of Al-Baghdadi’s demise. And attention will inevitably now shift to ISIS’s future—specifically its capacity to continue its insurgency at the “centre”, in Syria and Iraq, the viability of its foreign wilayats (provinces).
The Raid in Syria
In his speech, President Trump said that Al-Baghdadi had been tracked to a compound in Idlib province in northern Syria about two weeks ago, and had retreated to a tunnel under the building with three of his children after the Marines burst through the wall in the afternoon on Saturday (U.S. time), avoiding the booby-trapped front-door.
Cornered by Americans soldiers and dogs, Al-Baghdadi had detonated his suicide vest, killing himself and murdering the three children. Al-Baghdadi had “died like a dog”, said the President, adding that the terror leader was “screaming, crying, and whimpering” at the end. “He was scared out of his mind.”
The U.S. military personnel dug out what remained of Al-Baghdadi’s corpse and performed an on-site DNA test to confirm Al-Baghdadi’s identity, said Trump, using samples taken in 2004 when Al-Baghdadi was briefly imprisoned at Camp Bucca in Iraq.
Many other ISIS jihadists were killed during the operation, according to Trump, and local sources indicate that one of the slain was a senior Al-Baghdadi lieutenant Abu Saeed al-Iraqi. Trump also said a number of ISIS operatives and vast amounts of data had been captured.
Within hours, it was reported that the Saudi national serving as ISIS’s spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, had been killed in a follow-on U.S. raid in northern Syria, presumably triggered by the information, human and/or digital, captured in the raid that killed he caliph.
Trump vowed that the U.S. would continue to hunt down Islamist terrorists, not only from ISIS but other groups like Al-Qaeda. Trump reminded his audience that Hamza bin Laden, who had been “saying very bad things” about America and its allies, had been struck down earlier this year.
It was surprising that Al-Baghdadi was in Syria, rather than Iraq, and immensely shocking that Al-Baghdadi should be discovered in this particular area. Idlib is the last province of Syria controlled by anti-regime, anti-ISIS insurgents, by this stage dominated by jihadists, and the village Al-Baghdadi was found in, Barisha, is under the control of Al-Qaeda’s reconstituted presence in Syria, Tanzim Hurras al-Deen.
ISIS and Al-Qaeda/Hurras al-Deen have been physically at war for many years in Syria, and ideologically the two groups have burned all bridges. ISIS excommunicated Hurras al-Deen, ruling that it is not only licit but required that its members be killed.
So how could Al-Baghdadi be hiding in Hurras al-Deen territory? It seems that ISIS had an agent in the senior ranks of Hurras al-Deen who provided Al-Baghdadi with shelter. Originally it had seemed that Al-Baghdadi was merely transiting Idlib, but credible sources say he had been there for months.
If the agent in Hurras al-Deen provides the how, what is much less clear is why the ISIS leader thought he would be safe in Idlib, a zone heavily surveilled by multiple states that has been a graveyard for many of Al-Qaeda’s most illustrious veterans, including the overall deputy of the organisation.
The immediate impact of Al-Baghdadi’s removal on ISIS’s operations is uncertain. It will partly depend on who replaces him.
ISIS has placed a large emphasis on Al-Baghdadi’s Quraysh tribal descent, a traditional caliphal qualification. It is likely that his successor will have to meet this test, too.
That said, the most likely visible successor is Haji Abdullah or Abdullah Qirdash, whose real name is Muhammad Saeed Abdurrahman Muhammad al-Mawla, whose Quraysh lineage is uncertain. He is a Turkoman from Tal Afar.
When Al-Mawla was added to the U.S. Treasury’s Rewards for Justice list in August, it was noted that he was “a potential successor to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” and “one of ISIS’s most senior ideologues”, involved in the genocide against the Yazidis and foreign terrorist operations.
There have already been claims from dissident ISIS factions that Al-Mawla has taken control after Al-Baghdadi’s death
There are two officials from the ISIS military cadres that are potential candidates to replace Al-Baghdadi, though again both are of uncertain Quraysh provenance. First is Abd al-Nasir, whose real name might be Taha al-Khuwayt, one of the most extreme ISIS leaders, a some-time head of the Delegated Committee, and a Specially Designated Terrorist by the U.S. State Department. Second is Mu’taz Numan Abd Nayf Najm al-Jaburi (Haji Tayseer), who has been with ISIS since the days when it was called Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and apparently had a role in bomb-making. The U.S. has offered $5 million for information leading to Al-Jaburi’s capture or killing.
Crucially important, in terms of how much damage Al-Baghdadi’s liquidation will do to ISIS, is how the succession plays out. If Al-Baghdadi has appointed a successor or ISIS has a process in place to choose one, and the group sticks to this, then the impact could be quite minimal. If the succession becomes a factional struggle, then the impact could be much greater, involving harm to ISIS’s image, ideological reach, and perhaps even seeing further splits.
ISIS is focused on its activities at the “centre”, in Syria and Iraq, and it is unclear that the structural factors enabling its campaign will be altered by Al-Baghdadi’s death. Rather, the trend seems to run the other way: the political dynamics that allowed ISIS to grow in the first place in Iraq and Syria—namely states that are at once too weak and too predatory—are worse now than at previous times of ISIS’s ascendancy. The organisation has thus continued to advance, even after the loss of its “caliphate”.
While the political dimension is the most important to any insurgency, there are military factors that have broken ISIS’s way.
ISIS has been making steady gains as an insurgent force in central and northern Iraq, particularly in the area around Kirkuk where Iranian-led security forces pushed the Iraqi Kurdish forces out in late 2017. The gaps in the security infrastructure have provided ISIS room to grow.
A similar dynamic exists in eastern Syria, where a patchwork of forces control the zone. On the one side is the brutal yet brittle governing structure belonging to the Iranian-supported Bashar al-Assad regime. On the other side is the authoritarian and corrupt Kurdish statelet supported by the Americans. And the recent Turkish invasion in northern Syria has opened even more space for ISIS.
ISIS’s foreign branches—particularly in Afghanistan and Egypt—have become very powerful. These insurgent forces receive “broad guidance” from ISIS, as well as money, and they are laced with well-trained, battle-hardened operatives of ISIS “centre”. Given these organic ties fostered with the wilayats that are unaffected by Al-Baghdadi’s death, and the favourable cost-vs.-reward calculus for both sides of the equation, it is unlikely there will be a weakening of ties between ISIS and its global networks. To the contrary, there are indications that revenge strikes will be directed by ISIS at Western nations.
There has been some speculation that Al-Baghdadi was in Idlib to arrange a merger with elements of Al-Qaeda. It is possible that a fringe of Hurras al-Deen was open to this, but the divide with Al-Qaeda is deep and permanent. ISIS will continue to try to eclipse Al-Qaeda as the leader of the jihadi community, and a return to foreign attacks would be one way to signal its continued health after the loss of its “caliph”. Since Al-Qaeda ceased such operations some time ago, and has not (yet) restarted them, it would benefit ISIS to fight this out on that terrain.