The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a significant blow to the global salafi-jihadist movement. Since al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph of IS in the summer of 2014, his name has been used to lure new recruits and to help coalesce the myriad of salafi-jihadist groups to a common cause of forming a caliphate. The vision of a caliphate bestowed power and legitimacy to al-Baghdadi’s cause, inspired online masses, and drew an unprecedented number of foreign fighters all across the globe into its ranks. But al-Baghdadi’s death together with the demise of the caliph, has adversely impacted their cause and makes it more difficult for followers to be inspired to join their movement.
While al-Baghdadi’s death will adversely affect the ideological narrative within the global salafist movement, this does not quell the threat from IS and their associated groups for three primary reasons. First, al-Baghdadi’s death will not impact the core operations of IS. Given that he has been in hiding for many years now, command and control of IS fighters and the group’s affiliates have not been directly dependent on him for their ongoing undertakings. Core leaders of IS still remain operational and while military pressure on IS has made analysis of its leadership challenging, most counter terrorism experts agree that there is a succession plan to put a new leader in place.
Second, IS of today is a much different organization, less reliant on leadership control, than the one created in 2014. It is much less hierarchical and highly diffused. From a centralized, hierarchical structure, IS has morphed into a decentralized, leaderless movement. From the Middle East expanding to Asia and Africa a number of regional groups have pledged allegiance to IS, while autonomous cells and “lone wolves” have been acting on its behalf in Australia, Europe, North America and elsewhere.
Third, the past history has illustrated the risk of underestimating the ability of IS to rebound from a major loss. IS in its various forms has survived the death of several leaders and senior commanders. Despite these setbacks, it has been always able to replenish its ranks. Currently, perhaps even more troubling are the thousands of IS fighters detained by Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria. The U.S. decision in October 2019 to pull out of Northern Syria and abandon its former allies to a Turkish invasion have increase the risk that IS fighters will escape and regroup.
Manned guard tower at Camp Monsabert, Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. Image credit: Sgt. Katie Eggers/U.S. National Guard
In the immediate term, we should expect to see reprisal attacks across the globe in retaliation for al-Baghdadi’s death. These attacks are to demonstrate that their movement is still intact and operational. Terrorism plots against U.S. and Western installations such as embassies and military barracks in high terrorism risk areas such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen should be expected.
However, in the West, particularly in the United States, major terrorism plots are unlikely as such attacks will take time to organize and execute. Terrorist groups such as IS are meticulous. They are patient and will wait for security to be lowered before mounting a major attack. With the heightened security in Western countries in light of al-Baghdadi’s demise, it is unlikely that a group or an individual will be able to orchestrate a large attack.
For the longer time horizon, we need to be cognizant that al-Baghdadi was just a cog within the global salafist movement, albeit a large one. The real strength of the salafi-jihadist movement has never been its global infrastructure or its leadership per se, but rather its overarching ideology. So long as its ideology remains intact, the movement will be able to resuscitate itself.
Unfortunately, the political oxygen needed to fuel their cause remains abundant. IS and their followers are still able to leverage injustices resulting from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Somalia, Yemen and beyond to draw recruits. Thus, in the long run, to quell the terrorism threat, it is essential not only to remove terrorism’s operational space by targeting key leaders, but it is imperative that the ideology is discredited as well. Until the ideology is wiped out, the long-term terrorism risk landscape will remain the same.
The killing of IS leader al-Baghdadi represents a major counter terrorism operations success for the United States. His death is a huge validation of the United States counter terrorism operations and is a reminder that terrorism threat is not synonymous with terrorism hazard: through commensurate security measures, a change in the threat level can be countered. Nevertheless, his death is largely symbolic and does not dent the operational capabilities of IS and the wider salafi-jihadist movement. Thus, the terrorism risk landscape will not change despite the death of al-Baghdadi.