This article was written by Constantin Ghika, a staff writer for Shield. Constantin is an undergraduate student in the department of War Studies at King’s College London. The multicultural environment in which he grew up (his mother is French and his father is Romanian), as well as his family’s military background, gave him a passion for international defence and security issues. His favourite topics are insurgency, counter-insurgency, terrorism, nuclear weapons, military strategy and military history, among others. In his free time, Constantin enjoys reading, playing video games and doing sports.
On 26 October 2019, US Special Forces killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of Daesh. The group was already under pressure: it had lost most of its territory, and many considered it functionally defeated. Losing its leader only reinforced that narrative. Nevertheless, the organisation remains present in Iraq and Syria, and can rely on affiliates around the world. What really then is the significance of Baghdadi’s death for Daesh?
On one hand, it is undeniably a blow to the group’s morale. In an interview conducted by the author, Peter Neumann, Professor at King’s College London and Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), argues the organisation had suffered many defeats over the past years. Baghdadi was an inspirational figure within the Salafi-Jihadist sphere; his death ‘reinforces the narrative that [Daesh] is losing’. His death also dealt a blow to Daesh’s command structure: although Baghdadi’s exact role and influence within the group was unclear, Dr Shiraz Maher, lecturer at King’s College London and Director of the ICSR, argues in a separate interview with the author that Baghdadi was very much in charge, managing the caliphate and encouraging attacks abroad.
Nevertheless, says Maher, his death was ‘still not that significant’: it was a mostly symbolic blow to Daesh, unlikely to have long-term consequences. As Maher points out, ‘jihadist movements aren’t sentimental about their leaders or about personalities.’ Bin Laden’s death offers an interesting parallel: both Daesh and Al-Qa’ida were declining at the time of their leaders’ deaths, but Al-Qa’ida did not collapse despite its decline and the death of its leader. Daesh too will be able to move beyond Baghdadi’s death. It has lost key individuals before (such as the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Daesh’s predecessor, al-Zarqawi) and been considered defeated many times. Yet the organisation has adapted and demonstrated an impressive resilience. As commander of U.S. Central Command General McKenzie points out: Daesh ‘is first and last an ideology’ which goes beyond the group or its leader.
The future of Daesh will be heavily influenced by its new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi. Al-Hashemi is totally unknown within intelligence circles – perhaps even within ISIS – but he should not be underestimated. As Shiraz Maher warns, ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was unknown when he came to the head [of Daesh]. So, just because someone comes to the fore and we don’t know much about them does not mean they won’t go on to do something that catches the world’s attention’. Indeed, Baghdadi became leader of Daesh in 2010, when the group was on the backfoot, but he rose to fame in 2014 only when Daesh went on the offensive in Iraq. Baghdadi managed to rebuild it and create a very successful terrorist movement. What al-Hashemi does now – and how other jihadists perceive him – will have a significant impact on the future of Daesh.
The future of Daesh will also depend on the group’s situation in Iraq and Syria. The territorial caliphate created there is now gone, but there are still around 30,000 to 37,000 jihadist fighters belonging to Daesh and Al-Qa’ida related-groups who are able to operate quite freely. In March 2019, the US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat IS, James Jeffrey, claimed there were between 15,000 and 20,000 Daesh fighters in Iraq and Syria. Many fighters are in Kurdish jails, which are under-guarded and threatened by attacks from ISIS; the Kurdish guards are also distracted by the threat from Turkey. In addition, a UN Security Council report from August 2019 argued that in Syria, the Islamic State’s covert networks and sleeping cells are being established or reactivated. Moreover, despite the loss of important resources, the Islamic State still has some funds and is looking for ways to get more. Overall it appears the group has reverted to an insurgency similar to the one it fought after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is trying to rebuild some kind of territorial base in Iraq and Syria.
Local dynamics in Iraq and Syria will play an important role in determining whether or not Daesh succeeds. As Seth G. Jones puts it: ‘The persistence of jihadist movements has largely been a result of structural conditions like local grievances and weak governance’. Daesh, and more generally Salafi Jihadist groups, have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to flourish in chaos. Recent regional developments such as the Turkish offensive in Syria, mass demonstrations in Iraq, escalating tensions between the US and Iran, and weak states in general breed chaos and create fertile ground for the Islamic State to flourish and rebuild.
The attitudes of Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria will also be paramount. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq and Daesh have both portrayed themselves as protectors of the Sunnis. As Shiraz Maher argues, Daesh probably lost some support from the Sunnis due to its harsh policies, but they did deliver some degree of stability; Sunnis may choose to side with Daesh again if they feel it is necessary for their security. Here, too, the history of Al-Qa’ida provides an interesting precedent: from 2005 onwards, Sunni tribes in Iraq took up arms against their former ally. This was a key factor in Al-Qa’ida’s decline (until Iraq’s Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s pro-Shia, anti-Sunni sectarian policies in the early 2010s drove them back into Al-Qa’ida’s arms). The state of Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq and Syria will determine much of the future of the Islamic State.
The future of Daesh also depends on the group’s global outreach. Although the group has lost much of its ground in Iraq and Syria, its reach is not limited to that territory. Daesh created several provinces across Africa and in South Asia. As Peter Neumann argues, this international spread is one way for Daesh to counter the narrative of defeat, to present its defeat as leading towards the next phase of globalism. However, as Shiraz Maher points out, ‘the core needs to be functioning’ for the affiliates to function as well. Hence, the exact trajectories that Daesh affiliates will follow is unclear: some might retain their allegiance to Daesh, some might not. It ultimately goes down to the attitude of the new leadership, its policies and how it is going to influence the organisation. Another aspect of Daesh’s worldwide outreach is the threat of returnees from Iraq and Syria, who might conduct attacks in the West to prove that the caliphate is not defeated, as Al-Hashemi threatened. To sum up, Daesh can still rely on its global network of affiliates, although their importance in the organisation’s future is still unsure. Ultimately, Daesh is first and foremost an ideology, and it will take years to combat it.
I have demonstrated that, on the one hand, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is mostly symbolic and will hardly hurt Daesh on the long-term. The group has dealt with the death of a leader before, and they have already found a new one. Furthermore Daesh, despite its ‘defeat’, is still present in Iraq and Syria as an insurgency and is trying to rebuild its base and power by taking advantages of local dynamics and structural issues. In addition, Daesh could benefit from its global network of affiliates to continue its fight. It is hard to predict exactly what comes next, but one thing is sure: Daesh is nowhere near defeat.