NEWS ABOUT THE MAN’s DEATH, only to be followed by him resurfacing, had become the internet’s favourite pastime over the last five years. However, October 27 halted this recurring theatre forever as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader at the helm of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was killed by US Special Forces after a difficult covert operation.
US President Donald Trump triumphantly announced that al-Baghdadi “died like a dog, he died like a coward,” at a press conference in the White House. He had authorized the elimination of one of the world’s most dreaded terrorists. Islamic State, a few days later, confirmed the death of its ‘emir’.
However, the question to ponder over now is whether the death of the ISIS leader is a symbolic final nail on the outfit’s coffin or whether Baghdadi’s death will rekindle the organization. Symbolic because, once seen as a very powerful organization, earlier this year ISIS lost the last bit of the territory it captured for its self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014, along north-eastern Syria. Thus, on the ground, ISIS is conspicuously toothless. However, that might not translate into its powerlessness. This was reflected in US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement when he said, “..there is still work left to do to ensure ISIS’s enduring defeat.”
The immediate question surrounding Baghdadi’s killing is if it will lead to the final ebb of ISIS. If experts are to be believed, the effect of leadership decapitation is time-dependent; the sooner the leader is eliminated, the greater are the chances for the organization to die.
Bryan C Price, in a piece for the journal International Security writes, “A terrorist group whose leader has been decapitated in the first year of the group’s existence is more than eight times as likely to end as a non-decapitated group. The effects diminish by 50% after 10 years and, after 20 years, leadership decapitation may have no effect on the group’s mortality rate.”
However, Bryan concluded that since terrorist outfits are ‘value-based’ organizations, in the long run, they are susceptible to leadership decapitation. “Violent groups are inherently more cohesive than nonviolent groups, a feature that makes leadership succession more difficult. They are also often led by charismatic leaders who are hard to replace,” he said, adding “The clandestine nature of terrorist groups, increases dependency on their leaders, complicates leadership succession, and negatively affects organizational learning and decision-making.”
With Baghdadi’s elimination, a violent turn of events is imminently foreseen. Even though Trump proudly boasted of having vanquished ISIS, the terrorist group is rebooting its strength, essentially the financial channels, including an escalation in guerrilla attacks, reported the New York Times.
This totally resonates with Bryan’s warning, where he talks about the immediate violent aftermath of leadership elimination. “Leadership decapitation may have negative short-term consequences, but it significantly increases terrorist group mortality rates.”
Additionally, Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria raises the fear of the outfit’s resurgence. Military officials have earlier warned that if pressure is not mounted, there are chances that ISIS might rebound within six to 12 months.
A similar threat perception echoed in the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ report, wherein he particularly mentioned the existence of 14,000 to 18,000 active, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters, particularly operating in the remote rural areas and deserts of Anbar and Nineveh provinces and the mountains that straddle Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Diyala.
Though the death of Baghdadi has made ISIS leaderless and possibly directionless, thousands of its fighters, intoxicated with its morbid ideologies, continue to be alive. If reports are to be believed, fighters, sympathizers, and ISIS ideologues remain scattered in Europe while the group has financial holdings in Libya and central Africa. Furthermore, the recent military offensive launched by Turkey in the bordering Kurdish towns of Syria led to the escape of over 100 ISIS prisoners, as Kurdish forces guarding these prisoners had to abandon the detention centres to fight back the Turkish military. These escaped terrorists might trigger national security concerns and, according to experts, protecting the border now becomes more vital, as there are chances of attacks.
Pointing to its previous modus operandi of radicalizing younger people using social media, Anju Gupta, a former top Indian police officer, terms Baghdadi’s killing as a mere transient setback for ISIS and says it will do little to mitigate the threats posed by the terrorist outfit. Cautioning against ‘signature’ attacks by ISIS adherents, including multiple assaults of smaller magnitude to exhibit their strength, Gupta said, being leaderless, now might be the time for the organization’s numerous sleeper cells to pay tribute to their dead chief.
With elections around the corner, the killing of Baghdadi certainly comes as a much needed political victory for the Trump administration. However, it remains to be seen if his elimination brings the end of ISIS, which held brutal power over almost eight million people, inflicting horrendous crimes like rape, kidnapping, extortion, and murder.
— Shamim Zakaria
(The writer is the Beijing-based Foreign Editor for the Global Times, China)
(This article has been reproduced here in arrangement with the South Asia Monitor. It can be accessed at https://southasiamonitor.org)