- The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last week ended one of the most intense and aggressive manhunts in the world. He blew himself in a dead-end tunnel.
- As a “leader on the run” for more than five years, Baghdadi was more of a symbol for a Caliphate.
- It will be an overstatement to claim that his killing put an end to the ISIS network.
ISIS: A quick recap
- The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) officially known as the Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist group and a formerly unrecognized proto-state that follows a fundamentalist Salafi jihadist doctrine.
- Within 18 months of the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, the AL Qaeda in Iraq captured large territories across Iraq and Syria and morphed itself into ISIS.
- The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations as well as by many international organizations and individual countries.
Modus operandi of IS
- Riding high on extremists and terrorists from across the globe, ISIS announced “decentralized” wilayas and asked their supporters to join them if they could not travel to the Caliphate.
- The decentralized wilayas in West Africa, the Philippines, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Libya have become more active and are showcasing successes on social media daily.
- IS started systematically encouraging lone actor attacks in the West in 2016.
The most lethal weapon
- The real threat that the IS, however, poses is that it is able to convince the Muslim extremist fringe that their time has come.
- Radicalization, in any event, has less to do with numbers than with the intensity of beliefs. The struggle is not against presumed disparities or injustices meted out to Muslim minorities.
- Rather, it reflects the quest for a new militant Islamist identity.
- In addition to this, the IS introduced the concept of a new Caliphate — especially al-Baghdadi’s vision of a Caliphate based on Islamic history.
- This further ignited the imagination of Muslim youth across the globe and became a powerful magnet to attract volunteers to their cause.
Who was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
- The leader of the IS was often described as the most wanted individual in the world.
- The US designated him a terrorist some eight years ago and declared a bounty of $10 million (more than Rs 70 crore) on his head.
- Baghdadi, who was believed to have been born in Iraq perhaps in 1971, proclaimed himself Caliph of the Islamic State in 2013.
- He made his first known public appearance the following year, delivering a Ramzan sermon at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul in northern Iraq.
- This was the place at which the IS declared itself to be a worldwide Caliphate with al-Baghdadi at its head.
- In early 2014, al-Baghdadi’s fighters had taken control over western Iraq, and over the next year and a half, the IS ran a sweeping campaign of terror and brutality across a vast patch of Iraq and Syria.
- It went on terrifying the world with grisly videos of beheadings and shaking up governments everywhere.
- By the end of 2015, it had control over an estimated 8-12 million people over which it imposed an unforgiving version of Sharia law, attracting jihadists from across the world, including a few from India.
- The terrorist organization and empire that Baghdadi headed was estimated at the time to have been the size of Great Britain, with an annual budget of over a billion dollars and an army of more than 30,000 jihadists.
- The ISIS started to weaken from 2016 onward as the international coalition, backed by regional allies including, most importantly, Syrian Kurdish peshmerga fighters, gained ground in Syria and Iraq.
- As the formal structure of ISIS crumbled, thousands of its fighters went underground, even though local groups continued to carry out isolated terrorist incidents across the world in the name of ISIS and al-Baghdadi.
Infamous terror activities
- Among the biggest of ISIS attacks were carried out in Paris in November 2015, and in Sri Lanka in 2019.
- Al-Baghdadi described the attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter as revenge for the defeat in Al-Baghuz Fawqani in Syria, which was taken from ISIS in late March.
What does Baghdadi’s killing now mean?
- Should Baghdadi’s elimination be confirmed, it would mark the bringing to justice of one of the biggest terrorist killers of modern times and the successful conclusion of a massive international manhunt.
- It must be remembered that there have been multiple alerts about his death earlier.
- In June 2017, Russia claimed he had been killed in an airstrike near Raqqa, Syria; two weeks later, the most reliable Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported “confirmed information” that al-Baghdadi was dead.
Did this put an end to ISIS?
- Baghdadi’s death will not necessarily mark the end of ISIS itself, which though fragmented and no longer easily visible, is far from dead.
- ISIS lives on and today it is much stronger than it was in 2011 before Baghdadi when American troops pulled out of Iraq and the group was considered defeated.
- Besides its thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has a Khorasan province and provinces in the Philippines and West Africa and it is strong and growing in Afghanistan.
- These are groups that are robust on the ground and there is enough evidence to suggest that there is the connective tissue between the affiliates and ISIS’s core group in Iraq and Syria.
Implications for India
Rising influence in the vicinity
- ISIS has attracted foreign fighters from South Asia, mainly Pakistanis, Afghans, Maldivians, and Bangladeshis.
- The Easter attacks showed the potential of violence even by a small group of committed cadres with support of the ISIS network.
- The NIA during its investigations has since come across links connecting IS units in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as in Sri Lanka.
- In Bangladesh three years ago, ISIS did create a small but effective network with the active support of western nationals of Bangladeshi origin.
Vulnerability at home
- Less than 100-200 Indians so far are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan to join ISIS.
- This creates the potential for more recruitment as well as aiding attacks on Indian soil or interests.
- A few weeks ago, ISIS propaganda has called for jihad pegged on sentiments around Kashmir and has specifically called for attacks on Indian interests in the Arabian Peninsula.
- ISIS has suffered significant setbacks over the past two years, losing most of its territorial control, and has returned to its roots as an insurgent organization.
- Given the recent successes in the fight against ISIS, many analysts and government officials are optimistic that Baghdadi’s death will result in substantial weakening and perhaps the demise of ISIS.
- However, to effectively bring down a terrorist group through targeting its leader, it’s important to consider three factors: organizational structure, ideology, and popular support.
- Baghdadi’s death will not hinder the operational capacity or bring about the collapse of ISIS. In fact, it could even be counterproductive to weakening ISIS.
ISIS – An ideology not a personality cult
- Advocates of this view argue that Baghdadi is irreplaceable, given his claim of lineage to the prophet Muhammad.
- Despite this belief in Baghdadi’s authority and legitimacy as a leader of the self-proclaimed caliphate, however, ISIS is not a cult of personality.
- Baghdadi was successful in institutionalizing essential organizational structures.
- Looking at nearly 1,000 instances of leadership decapitation from 1970 to 2016 revealed that it is often ineffective against religious, separatist, Islamist and large organizations.
ISIS is more organized
- Bureaucratized terrorist organizations are diversified with a clear division of responsibilities and functions, standard operations procedures, and other characteristics that create redundancies to support their resilience.
- In the case of ISIS, Baghdadi created complex bureaucratic structures to govern and manage its finances, social programs, infrastructure and military resources.
- ISIS has also developed into a hybrid organizational structure.
- That is, the group is hierarchical at the upper organizational levels, with the emir at the top; deputies who oversee financial, military, legal and social operations; and legislative councils including the Shura Council.
- At the lower operational levels, the group is more decentralized, with networks including those in Iraq and Syria; affiliated groups in South Asia, the Arabia and Africa; and lone actors who span the globe.
- Such hybrid structures are especially difficult to weaken through targeting efforts.
- The leadership of Islamist, religious or separatist groups is not necessary for recruitment, inspiring attacks or ensuring that the group’s message stays relevant.
- The ideology becomes self-sustaining, and the Islamic State’s use of propaganda and technology has been effective at broadening their base of support transnationally.
- In August 2018, Baghdadi urged his followers to carry out lone-actor attacks in Western countries.
New successor in queue
- ISIS has a wide and deep pool of militants from which to recruit his successor and a bureaucracy that encourages specialization and training.
- Less than a week after Baghdadi’s death, the organization announced a successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, as the new caliph.
- It grants the basis for group legitimacy, which can increase an organization’s efficiency and resilience.
- After an attack on a terrorist group’s leadership, popular support is essential to maintaining organizational strength and capacity.
- The creation of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate broadened this base of support.
- The caliphate may be weakened after him, but Baghdadi created a highly resilient bureaucratic organizational structure capable of withstanding the loss of leaders.
- Attacks on high-profile leaders are visible counterterrorism measures that can make a fearful U.S. audience feel secure in the belief that their government is successfully fighting the war on terrorism.
- It is an alternative to such costly policies as large-scale military operations.
- But in the case of ISIS, it’s an alternative that not only disregards critical aspects of the group’s resilience — it could even fuel a strengthened retaliation.