What Does Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Death Mean for ISIL?

ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed on Sunday as a result of a raid by U.S. Special Operations Forces in northern Syria. The leader of the Islamic State was cornered when he triggered an explosive suicide vest that killed himself and three of his children. He was quickly identified using an on-site DNA analysis and facial recognition test. Al-Baghdadi was considered the world’s most wanted man with a $25 million bounty for his capture. Mazlum Abdi, the head of a Kurdish-led militia, reported that Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, al-Baghdadi’s potential successor, was killed shortly after by an American airstrike.

“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” announced Trump at the White House.

Assistant professor at the Defense Studies Department of King’s College London Andreas Krieg said that the leader’s death was “mostly of symbolic importance”. He went on to explain, “I’ve said for years that this organization has become somewhat of a virtual caliphate; a franchise that other groups can buy into and basically sell around the world.”

Many countries released statements regarding the raid. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry praised the United States by stating, “The kingdom appreciates the US administration’s efforts to pursue members of this terrorist organization that distorted the real image of Islam … and committed atrocities and crimes.” 

Russia’s Major-General Igor Konashenkov was quoted saying, “The Russian Ministry of Defense does not have reliable information on the US servicemen conducting in the Turkish-controlled part of the de-escalation zone of Idlib an operation on yet another ‘elimination’ of the former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” 

Iran’s information minister, Mohammed Javad Azari-Jahromi tweeted that al-Baghdadi’s death was “not a big deal. You just killed your creature” in reference to Iran’s claims that the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq is to blame for the creation of ISIL.

The consequences of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death is not a weaker ISIL as much as it is a spark of justice for the victims of indiscriminate killings commanded by al-Baghdadi. While this brings a sense of relief and joy to many civilians in the Levant, it does not mean the obliteration of ISIL at all. As implied by Andreas Krieg’s quote above, ISIL has developed into a decentralized terrorist group where sleeper cells and isolated combatants can carry out attacks on their own without the need for guidance from a sole leader. ISIL continues to carry out underground operations mostly separate from al-Baghdadi’s reach. Moreover, just as Al-Qaeda was quick to appoint a new leader, ISIL will most likely do the same. However, internal dissent has been brewing within the leadership of the group and with the death of the supposed successor, there may be obstacles in appointing a new leader of the caliphate. If ISIL does follow through with a resurgence, this could mean an increase in violence to account for the death of their leader. Trump has been stoking this fire in using obscene language to describe the raid. Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor and Middle East and South Asia academic, said Trump was basically giving us a “snuff film” in the way he described al-Baghdadi’s death as he “died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying…he died like a dog. He died like a coward.” This type of commentary could be dangerous in motivating ISIL members to develop attacks that demonstrate their ideology’s survival. 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an Iraqi who was declared leader of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2010. He then expanded into Syria before announcing the Islamic State of the Levant and capitalizing off the instability and power vacuum left behind after 2011. The creation of ISIL can be traced back to 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq because, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, many Iraqi civilians were left unemployed, poor, and with a deep disdain for America in the face of many careless and cruel acts carried out by U.S. troops. Al-Baghdadi’s goal was to create an Islamic state that covered every corner of the world under a strict interpretation of early Islam. ISIL challenges Al Qaeda by being more ruthless in indiscriminate killings and fighting parallel to how a military would. They have more popularity among young people and even foreigners through their online presence and the ease in which one can join the group. The group has been weakened by on the ground fighting but individuals throughout the world still carry out attacks in the name of ISIL. 

It is a relief for many people that such a cruel and brutal person no longer leads such a hateful terrorist organization but in the larger scheme of things, this does not mean much for the abatement of the ideology that powers these acts.  

Kerent Benjumea