Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts With the Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi Dead, Where does Jihadist Terrorism Go?
With the Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi Dead, Where does Jihadist Terrorism Go?

With the Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi Dead, Where does Jihadist Terrorism Go?

The complex heliborne raid occurring yesterday killed the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The long sought after terror leader’s death marks a milestone for the U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State, particularly at a time when the U.S. has precipitously drawn down its forces in Syria. What should we make of al-Baghdadi’s death?

How much does Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death matter?

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be a bigger victory for the U.S. than the defeat of the Islamic State. Killing the Islamic State’s leader obviously offers a hard-won victory for the U.S. coalition which has chased the elusive leader for years. There had been more than a dozen claims of his demise in previous years and this decisive action will finally bring a close to this elusive terrorist leader’s legend.

But 18 years into the War on Terror, things have changed in terrorist circles. al-Baghdadi never reached the status of a Bin Laden, even though his terror group arguably achieved more than its forefather al Qaeda by declaring – and momentarily achieving – a caliphate.  al-Baghdadi’s public presence has always been limited, as he was not particularly charismatic and in recent years had rarely been seen or heard from. Moreover, coalition pressure on the Islamic State allowed rival group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to gain in strength and in, recent times, outshine the Islamic State. Formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is al Qaeda’s group in Syria and is led by al-Baghdadi’s former deputy and long time rival Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who has seen a revival during the Islamic State’s retreat.

For those Islamic State supporters scattered afar, connected only to jihad via the Internet, the Islamic State has become increasingly hard to access as they’ve been pushed from mainstream social media apps, their media battalion severely degraded, and their message weakened by battlefield losses. al-Baghdadi’s star naturally waned during this time and the scattering of his forces suggest his operational control over a sprawling global network was not likely that strong anymore.

al-Baghdadi’s death won’t likely inflict that much more operational pain on the Islamic State, but his death does symbolically mark the end of the group’s vision – the formation of a caliphate. al-Baghdadi did what Bin Laden always called for doing but held back from pursuing, he declared a caliphate (an Islamic State) and anointed himself caliph – a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad.  The vision of a reemergent caliphate brought power to al-Baghdadi’s cause, inspired online masses, and drew an unprecedented number of foreign fighters into the ranks. But al-Baghdadi’s death, as the caliph, also kills this dream and makes it increasingly difficult for followers to be inspired. The Islamic State, both operationally and symbolically, is near death.

Now, the world should worry what might emerge in its ashes.

America’s hasty withdrawal from Syria in recent weeks rightly raised concerns of a security vacuum emerging in Eastern Syria allowing for the regeneration of the Islamic State. President Trump’s withdrawal order came less than a month after al al-Baghdadi, who hadn’t been heard from in months, issued an audio broadcast calling for the raids on prisons to release IS fighters – a move similar to how the Islamic State of Iraq under al-Baghdadi regenerated years back to become the Islamic State.  Shortly after, reports of terrorists escaping detention emerged.

Farther afield, Islamic State affiliates have surged in other regions, particularly Afghanistan, where the U.S. hopes to exit after two decades of war, and even in the Philippines. al-Baghdadi’s death will dash the dreams of an Islamic State centered in the Levant, but its years of operations recruited, trained, and dispatched foreign fighters from dozens of countries that will lead the next generation of jihad to other frontiers. Islamic State-trained foreign fighters will be a future terrorism problem for the decade to come.

Will there be Islamic State-directed or -inspired reprisal attacks?

In previous eras of al Qaeda terrorism, the counterterrorism community would celebrate the death of a major al Qaeda leader and simultaneously worry about the threat of reprisals. Either the terror group or its distant supporters motivated by the Internet might be enticed to seek vengeance against the U.S. and its allies by striking soft targets in the West. 

The U.S. and the West should always raise their protection levels in the wake of a major terrorist attack, but the stakes might not be as high this time around.  Recently, the world learned that Osama Bin Laden’s son and emerging leader of his father’s al Qaeda, Hamza Bin Laden, had been killed many months before. Jihadist terrorists usually confirm the death of their prized leaders, and yet no communique emerged that might instigate reprisal attacks. Neither terrorists nor counterterror researchers had any idea of Hamza Bin Laden’s demise, demonstrating how weak these international networks are in comparison to just a few years ago. With al-Baghdadi’s death, the West will celebrate, but it remains uncertain how much online jihadi supporters will mourn or rise up in response. 2019’s terrorism scene isn’t 2009’s terror campaign equivalent. We should be prepared, but we shouldn’t panic.

Why did the U.S. get al-Baghdadi now? How dangerous was this mission?

The raid’s timing, so soon after the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, raises some interesting follow-up questions.

  • Did the U.S. withdrawal from Syria put al-Baghdadi into physical motion bringing about his detection and elimination?
    • If so, was he moving out of fear of being overrun by any number of forces or was he deploying in hopes of regenerating his tattered group?
    • Or did al-Baghdadi’s recent audio broadcast after so many months of quiet offer fresh signals for tracking the elusive leader?
  • Why was al-Baghdadi north of Idlib near the Turkish border?

This is a heavily dominated Hayat Tahrir al Sham area, and this shifting complex battlefield may have pushed him into a surprising place. Bin Laden at his Abottabad compound wasn’t where analysts imagined he’d be, maybe al-Baghdadi will repeat the pattern of being found and killed in an unexpected location.

  • Did the U.S. coordinate this raid with Turkey, Russia and Syria?

Initial reports suggest this raid “had been staged for a week before taking place on Saturday”. If this attack had gone awry, or not been coordinated with other nations, U.S. forces would have been in a perilous position between competing factions.

  • What should we worry about with global jihad?

Leadership decapitation of foreign terrorist groups is important and debilitates the violent campaigns of more organized groups centrally planning attacks on the West. But the deaths of terror leaders rarely if ever signal the end of terrorism. The West should instead be looking to what spawn may emerge from the Islamic State’s wake.  Much like the Islamic State’s emergence from al Qaeda, the death of enigmatic leaders often releases distant middle managers to pursue their own violent campaigns and spearhead emerging groups. In the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011, the world saw many splinters of al Qaeda rapidly move, compete, and escalate their operations. Right now, we should all be asking: what does the Islamic State look like, if it’s no longer a state (caliphate) and doesn’t have a leader (caliph)?