Since 2016, the Islamic State has lost its caliphate and 98% of its territory, seen its overall operations decline by about 70%, had its coterie of capable commanders and media officials killed, and retreated from highly visible social media platforms. In an audio message released by Islamic State media in August, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph without a caliphate, exhorted his followers to continue to have faith through these difficult times and to persevere in the fight against global enemies. In the midst of such a precipitous decline, with a U.S.-led coalition still continuing to reduce the last bit of the caliphate and hunt down its leaders, the group has remained remarkably cohesive organizationally, ideologically, and strategically—a true measure of resiliency beyond mere survival.
For every trend that suggests the group is down and out, others suggest it is clawing back. Successful attacks by lone actors inspired by the Islamic State are down, but this is largely due to vigilant and effective counterterrorism efforts and not for a lack of trying. Attacks in Iraq have generally stabilized to a level between five and ten per day in 2018, but in key areas like Kirkuk and the suburbs of Baghdad, attacks are increasing again. A few analysts are pointing to the similarities in the style of guerrilla warfare the Islamic State used to consolidate territorial control leading to the establishment of the caliphate, with a nascent insurgency developing in areas once pacified since 2014. Their point is a simple one; if it happened before, it can happen again.
To measure the Islamic State’s potential for resurgence, it is only natural to draw parallels with its past. The United States and its partners defeated the early manifestation of this group—the Islamic State of Iraq, also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq—in 2007-2010, and yet it bounced back to successfully establish its self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014. At this point, it would be naïve to think that the Islamic State’s past example of resilience, compounded by its current ability to endure, is an anomaly. Accordingly, we believe that its longevity is a product of an underappreciated (or at least regularly misunderstood) factor: its leadership practices and its implications for organizational and strategic dynamics. These organizational characteristics have kept the group operational for over a decade and will be essential for its survivability now and its future efforts to remerge again. We look back upon this history to understand the present and consider how the group’s wishes for the future may be thwarted.
Over a decade ago, the Islamic State movement had been physically gutted in Iraq. Any measure of “tangibles” at the time would conclude that the group had little future; instead, the group’s survival largely hinged on the “intangibles” of leadership. There is evidence that the Islamic State of Iraq’s leaders worked to cultivate a strategic culture within the organization that sought to learn from past problems to improve future performance. Like his direct predecessors Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the “two sheikhs” Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir and Abu Umar Al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr remained committed to preserving the movement’s manhaj through boom and bust. Like the “two sheikhs,” Abu Bakr’s approach to leadership largely shuns the public spotlight not only for the sake of security, but also for maintaining organizational stability over personal aggrandizement. In doing so, Abu Bakr has helped to extend the leadership legacy that has been crucial to keeping the group functioning.
Fast forward to the present day and the Islamic State is, once again, in a period of decline. A close consideration of that mix of “tangibles” and “intangibles” at its disposal reveals a different picture than when Abu Bakr took over in 2010. There is no question that the movement is in a measurably stronger position now, despite its heavy losses. A recent United Nations report suggests the group still has up to 30,000 members across Syria and Iraq. Moreover, having held territory and urban centers for varying periods of time since 2013, the Islamic State has undoubtedly sown “friendly” networks deep within these societies that will again prove vital for its survival. When one also considers that, unlike a decade ago, the Islamic State has a global spread of formal and aspirational wilayats (provinces) across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, the group has more flexibility in how they regain the initiative.
Besides the ongoing battle against a coalition of adversaries, perhaps the next most significant challenge facing the Islamic State is more of an “intangible” one and concerns how to maintain organizational, strategic, and ideological coherence through this current storm. While this challenge is a perpetual one for any movement, especially one with a transnational spread, it is further complicated by the conditions of its current failings. The Islamic State’s current predicament follows in the wake of a period of extraordinary success that brought with it expansion—territorially and strategically—and diversification—of its membership and operational activities. Success, expansion, and diversification create challenges for a movement. Success raises expectations and competition amongst the membership, while expansion and diversification strain the unifying bonds that keep a movement strategically and ideologically focused. During periods of boom, these tensions are comparatively easier to manage with member morale high, bureaucracies engaged, and communications functioning. During periods of bust, however, these tensions exponentially exacerbate the pressures inherent to survival. The remaining veterans of the Islamic State should know, as it was the beneficiary of another movement’s struggle to deal with these forces: al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda’s Charisma Vacuum
Seventeen years ago, the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. catapulted Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda to the forefront of the global jihad. What had begun as a small “vanguard” network in the 1990s had, within a decade, morphed into a transnational network of formal and aspirational affiliates. The subsequent reaction by the United States and its partners suppressed al-Qaeda’s leadership and crippled much of the structure essential for maintaining a semblance of strategic, operational, and ideological consistency across the network. So in the wake of a period of success, expansion, and diversification, al-Qaeda entered a period of steep decline. The Abbottabad Letters captured from Bin Laden’s hideout reveal how Bin Laden and al-Qaeda Central struggled to deal with its far-flung subordinates, particularly al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At its heart, al-Qaeda is an adhocracy and its inherent organizational susceptibilities were exacerbated by counterterrorism strategies that decimated not only its communication, logistical, and financial networks, but also killed those “middle managers” so crucial to operationalizing the directives of central leadership; all of which are essential for maintaining strategic and operational consistency. Bin Laden struggled to maintain coherence over his organization during its decline, and during the final stages of his life, he even considered renaming the group he had founded. When Bin Laden was killed in 2011, his successor Zawahiri made decisions which did more to bust open these tensions than placate them.
For years, Bin Laden’s charismatic appeal played a key role in holding al-Qaeda together as the various factions on internal disputes largely complied with his authority. His death created a vacuum which predictably resulted in remaining factions and affiliates “competing” to be the rightful heirs of his legacy. The greatest beneficiaries of these dynamics would be the Islamic State movement under the leadership of Abu Bakr, and the rest is history: by 2013, it challenged Zawahiri’s authority, and by July the following year, it had usurped al-Qaeda as the flagship of the global jihad with the announcement of its caliphate. By 2016, the Islamic State was facing a similar test to that which al-Qaeda had confronted. So far, its leadership has proven crucial to the difference in outcome.
The Caliph Factor
Despite indications of a growing ideological schism within the ranks of the Islamic State leadership, the group has managed its decline better than al-Qaeda had under Bin Laden and Zawahiri. We suggest that the difference in the nature of the authority of Abu Bakr’s leadership compared to that of al-Qaeda’s leaders may explain, if not in full then in part, those fortunes. Unlike Bin Laden, Abu Bakr is not a charismatic leader. While commentators regularly misuse “charismatic leader” as a catch-all term, since Max Weber’sEconomy & Society, the scholarly field has understood “charisma” to refer to an emotion-based leader-follower bond. In contrast, Weber defined two other leadership types: legal-rational authority, which is based on adherence to “law” or a legally enshrined process (e.g., elections in a democracy), and traditional authority, which is based on established order/custom (e.g., monarchy). For the Islamic State, the position of caliph represents a unique fusion of legal-rational and traditional authority. Abu Bakr didn’t seize power in the group, he was elected by the Islamic State of Iraq’s Shura council. Long time spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani described his new emir in 2011 in this way: “Although we have missed our emir, Abu-Omar al-Baghdadi, Allah has bestowed us with a better successor for him; we expect him to be so.” The position of caliph also requires the fulfillment of more “traditional” qualities which Abu Bakr has promoted by emphasizing the Al-Qurayshi tribal affiliation that reflects his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, a PhD in Islamic jurisprudence reflecting his theological credentials, and delivery of the Friday khutbah in July 2014 soon after its caliphate was announced; all of which are traditional qualities and roles of the caliph.
Abu Bakr is not the first leader of this type in the organization. His predecessor, Abu Umar, was very similar in background and style. Outsiders criticized and even ridiculed the selection of Abu Umar, and later questioned the selection of the little known Abu Bakr in 2010, yet repeated use of the selection process demonstrated the group’s firm adoption of this style of leadership as necessary for long-term stability. Put simply, the position makes the man, and the leader is largely followed for the position he holds. The stability inherent in this type of authority stems from the fact that the followers support the leader because of the position and will support the next one as willingly so long as these legal-rational and traditional conditions are satisfied. In contrast, charismatic authority requires constant engagement between the charismatic figure and their followers to maintain legitimacy. Without this contact, those emotion-based bonds of authority may wither. Charismatic leadership also tends to be volatile as they constantly react to the ebbs and flows of history as it unfolds. The Islamic State has a deep appreciation for such problems given its experiences with their founder Zarqawi’s volatility and reputation.
While the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate might have been a surprise, it shouldn’t have been. The group had been preparing this ground very carefully. Now that the caliphate has collapsed, it is noteworthy that the authority of the caliph remains in the eyes of its members. Instead of a massive hemorrhaging of people, current estimates of Islamic State fighter numbers remain higher than expected. The caliph’s intervention into serious internal disputes at the highest levels—a risky endeavor for a wanted man—seems to have prevented a takeover by an even more extreme wing of the group. By reshuffling the members of the Islamic State’s consultative council, and sending some of its highest-ranking members into exile, Abu Bakr demonstrated a tremendous extant power over the group. From an external perspective, the Islamic State West Africa province (also known as Boko Haram) recently published a book (translated by Aymenn al-Tamimi) about its history and beliefs, and in it dedicated a section to strongly reaffirm its allegiance to Abu Bakr. In the extended analysis by the current leaders, Abu Bakr is their caliph regardless of the state of the caliphate—largely because of the process of how he was selected and their judgment of the group’s religious doctrines.
Given the emphasis the Islamic State places on its supporters adhering to its manhaj (methodology), maintaining operational and strategic coherence is an important benchmark of its resiliency. This includes ensuring that not only is its propaganda apparatus disseminating official messaging that is pertinent and timely, but also that its supporters are amplifying official messaging and helping to flood media channels with “unofficial” messaging of their own design. The Islamic State even disseminated doctrine to help guide its so-called “media operatives.” Its online supporters play a particularly high-profile role as amplifiers and content creators, but clearly concerns were emerging within the organization that these auxiliaries might inadvertently broadcast and amplify the wrong message. Abu Bakr addressed this danger in his speech last month, and the Islamic State’s Arabic newsletter Al Naba recently offered a framework for guiding this “informal” component of its propaganda apparatus.
Making the Caliph Irrelevant Again
As the Islamic State movement follows its own playbook from the past to weather the current storm, a dogged commitment to its manhaj will be pivotal to ensuring that the next iteration of the Islamic State phenomenon stays true to its origins. After all, maintaining organizational, ideological, and strategic coherence is a more telling criterion for gauging resilience than mere survival at some small level of activity. On this account, Abu Bakr “the caliph” has played an essential role in helping his movement navigate the storms and ride-out the inevitable fluctuations in fortune. With hindsight, the announcement of its caliphate and, with it, a caliph in 2014 was about celebrating the achievement of the impossible, and then using the event to feed future imaginations in the face of what was sure to be an all-out assault. Killing the caliph will have little impact on the cohesion of this mature ideology and organization, at this point in its life cycle. The only way the international community can thwart the Islamic State’s efforts to rise again is to prepare for a much longer campaign than originally envisioned and continue to maintain a collaborative effort in intelligence sharing, counter finance, civil society support, disrupting information technology, and military pressure against the movement as it continues to stabilize. Despite the rhetoric of politicians looking at short-term gains, there will be no magic bullets in this long fight to keep this caliph a man without a kingdom.