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Would 'Invisible Sheikh's' Death Spell The End For IS?

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (file photo)

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (file photo)

On November 9, reports that Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had possibly been injured, even critically, in U.S. air strikes on the Iraqi city of Mosul began to emerge. Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries issued statements saying the self-appointed "caliph" had been wounded.

By November 10, speculation over Baghdadi's fate reached fever pitch, fueled by reports suggesting that an Islamic State spokesman, Muhammad al-Adnani, had confirmed that Baghdadi was injured on a Twitter account "believed to be operated" by him.

However, some experts cast doubt on the veracity of that source.

Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, a British expert on jihadi groups at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said that Adnani did not have a Twitter account:

While the facts surrounding Baghdadi's injury or possible death remain -- like the self-styled "caliph" himself -- shrouded in mystery, analysts and Syria watchers began to ponder a different question: what impact would the death of Baghdadi, recently dubbed the world's 54th-most-powerful person by "Forbes" magazine, have on Islamic State? Could IS even survive the death of its leader?

Former acting U.S. Secretary of the Army and Deputy Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Mike Walker put the questions succinctly in two tweets:

Any confirmation that the United States has succeeded in injuring or killing Baghdadi would be a tremendous boost for the anti-Islamic State coalition, and a psychological blow to IS.

In the first place, it would demonstrate to IS militants in Syria and Iraq that the United States, which has placed a $10 million bounty on Baghdadi's head, has the intelligence capabilities to locate and precisely target Islamic State's top leadership.

The top U.S. military commander in the fight against IS, General Lloyd Austin, mentioned the impact that such precision strikes have against the extremist group as recently as November 7, when he also referred to U.S. intelligence capabilities in terms of being able to intercept and listen to IS communications.

"They are afraid to congregate in any sizable formation," Austin said. "They know if we can see them, we're going to engage them and we're going to hit what we're aiming at.... As we listen to them, we know that the impact of the precision strikes is demoralizing to them."

On a symbolic level, the death or serious injury of Baghdadi would strike a blow against Islamic State's self-perception as a pseudo-state or "caliphate" with Baghdadi as a figurehead.

For the United States, confirmation that an air strike had taken out Baghdadi would provide a welcome boost domestically. After all, such news would come hot on the heels of reports that the United States' campaign in Syria and Iraq was not going so well, and was even "unravelling."

These criticisms were sparked after an Al-Qaeda-linked faction in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, routed Harakat Hazm, a U.S.-backed moderate faction in Idlib Province, one of the groups on which the United States was relying to help combat IS.

Meanwhile, the despondency over the campaign against IS was further fueled by comments from U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who admitted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was "deriving some benefit" from the U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.


The sense of achievement and the morale-boosting speeches that would inevitably result from a confirmation of Baghdadi's serious injury or death would certainly be welcome developments. But after the jubilation had died down, would the achievement of such a milestone in the war against IS guarantee a victory for the United States and its allies over the group? Would the "invisible caliph's" death be enough to destroy the morale of thousands of IS gunmen on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and would it stem the tide of new foreign fighters joining them?

No, according to Aki Peretz, a former CIA counterterrorism official, who told "The Atlantic" that Baghdadi's death would "be cause of presidential speeches and commendations, but not the death of [IS] nor its loathsome ideology."

Neither would Baghdadi's demise impact on Islamic State's revenues from oil sales, which are estimated to be as much as $3 million a day, making the group one of the wealthiest terror organizations in history. Islamic State has also targeted Syrian gas fields, capturing two in recent days. The group reported that it had seized the Jahar gas field on November 3 and the Sha'ar field on October 30, both in the central Homs Province.

So, even with Baghdadi out of the way, the United States and its allies would still have to continue with their efforts to starve Islamic State of its income streams, particularly its oil revenues. This has proved a challenge to date, particularly because the United States has been unable to persuade Turkey, where much of the oil is traded illegally, to crack down on the black market networks.

The death of Baghdadi would also not affect the fact that Islamic State militants, under a network of powerful local emirs (military commanders), control vast swathes of Syria and Iraq.

As if to remind the West of this fact, Islamic State social-media accounts on November 9 released a photograph of Umar Shishani, Islamic State's military commander for northern Syria (Russian-language IS accounts said that the photo was taken in "Wilayat Haleb," IS's name for the areas of Aleppo Province under its control: it is not possible to independently verify the location or the date of the photograph).

Analysts seem to agree that Baghdadi is replaceable (and that his replacement could be even worse: as Colonel Kenneth King, the former commanding officer of Camp Bucca, the U.S. detention camp in Iraq where Baghdadi was held until 2009, told the Daily Beast, Baghdadi was "a bad dude, but he wasn't the worst of the worst.")

While it would be unlikely for Islamic State to appoint a replacement immediately in the event of Baghdadi's death, it would certainly be possible for the group's leadership to readjust and reorganize itself.

According to Giorgio Bertolin, of King's College London, there are a number of candidates who could potentially replace Baghdadi, including the Syrian Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, and several others who served in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein, such as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi and Abu Ali al-Anbari.

Then there is the question of Islamic State's ideology, which -- as has been widely reported -- has spread its tentacles into almost every country on the planet.

Baghdadi's death would not dent that ideology: in fact, the "martyrdom" of the "caliph" at the hands of the "kuffar" -- the "infidels," as Islamic State militants term the United States and its allies, may even boost his status. After all, the death of Osama bin Laden, who the United States succeeded in killing in 2011, did not reduce the former Al-Qaeda leader's status in the eyes of his followers. (Bin Laden's image still appears frequently in Photoshopped images produced by Islamic State supporters.)

As anonymous Twitter user and Syria watcher The 47th tweeted:

Meanwhile, how were Islamic State militants themselves reacting to the rumors that their leader may have been killed by the United States?

Russian-speaking militants associated with the Islamic State's Al-Aqsa Brigade were scathing about the reports, choosing to deny them.

One militant, Abu Hafs al-Yordani (an ethnic Chechen from Jordan) said on the VKontakte social network that the reports were "infidel lies."

"And so it turns out that al-Baghdadi was attacked twice, in Al-Qaim and in Mosul, within a few hours on the same day...where is the intellect of these fibbers?!" he wrote.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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