President Trump notched a major counterterrorism victory Sunday when he revealed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom he called “the world’s number one terrorist leader,” had been killed in a raid by U.S. forces in northwest Syria.
But while Baghdadi’s death is a serious blow to the terror group, as it tries to regroup after the loss of its territorial caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it's far from fatal, experts said.
Instead, the movement had already decentralized itself to withstand the loss of any leader, and established a global network of largely independent terror franchises. Supporters, meanwhile, remain drawn to the group’s enduring vision of a fundamentalist caliphate, rather than the personal appeal of any single individual, analysts told VICE News.
“People weren’t really affiliating to ISIS because of Baghdadi’s personality,” said Shiraz Maher, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London. “They were affiliating to ISIS because of the concept of the caliphate and this concept of a successful movement — building something that not even al Qaeda had achieved.”
While Baghdadi’s death would hurt “to an extent,” the group’s recent territorial losses and the capture of thousands of their fighters by Kurdish forces represented a more significant loss, said Maher. What’s more, as demonstrated by al Qaeda, jihadi groups generally had the ability to endure despite the death of a figurehead.
ISIS had conscientiously built a movement designed to withstand the loss of any leader, with a decentralized structure that didn’t rely on Baghdadi’s day-to-day direction in Syria and Iraq, Ludovico Carlino, senior analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk, told VICE News.
“They have built a very solid bureaucratic organization, so his killing is unlikely to have a big impact on the group’s operational capabilities in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
The terror group’s fearsome reputation has allowed it to establish a global network of affiliates worldwide — from West Africa to Afghanistan to the Philippines — which also operated as insurgent movements independently of the central leadership in Syria and Iraq.
Carlino said that while the network was not as strong as it used to be — with the Libyan chapter no longer controlling territory, and the loss of the territorial caliphate impacting the leadership’s ability to set up new affiliates — supporters continue to pose a serious risk. In the past 12 months alone, ISIS has claimed responsibility for mass casualty attacks in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Philippines, France, as well as others elsewhere.
Carlino said Baghdadi’s death was unlikely to affect ISIS’ ability to exert an international reach in the short term, as “the loyalty of these affiliates is towards the group and the idea, not the individual.”
However, there was a risk for ISIS that it could lose this hold if its standing in the jihadi world fell further — something that could happen unless a compelling successor to Baghdadi emerged, Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank, told VICE News.
“If this figurehead does not emerge in the near future, it may be they evolve away from the central ISIS brand,” she said.
Maher said Baghdadi, who claimed he could trace his lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad, had a flair for powerful propaganda.
“He wasn’t a tactical strategic genius,” he said. “But he did achieve powerful theater — whether that was the theater of himself standing in the mosque in Mosul declaring the caliphate, or the theater of the very grisly executions.”
While analysts say ISIS will almost certainly have had a succession plan in place, for now, the identity of the next leader of the world’s most infamous terror group remains unknown. One man tipped as a potential successor, ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed in a separate raid early Sunday.
With the group already in transition and fighting to consolidate after the loss of its caliphate, the question of who takes the reins next will likely be crucial to its global survival, said Khatib.
“The global affiliates all benefited hugely from the brand of ISIS as this so-called caliphate. It helped them get legitimacy, instill fear, attract supporters and funding,” she said. “If it loses this intimidating image, the killing of Baghdadi may prove to be another huge loss for what remains of the group.”
Cover: In this July 17, 2017, file photo, a fighter of the Christian Syriac militia that battles Islamic State group militants under the banner of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, burns an IS flag on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)