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The killing al-Baghdadi does not reduce the threat from the Islamic State

Soon enough, the ISIS core will anoint a new Caliph, to whom all the wilayas (branches) and extremists and supporters will readily offer allegiance (bayat) to, while paying rich tribute to the “fallen hero”.

Written by Anju Gupta |
Updated: October 31, 2019 11:41:19 am
isis, Abu bakr Al-Baghdadi, isis after baghdadi, baghdadi dead, syria, us president donald trump, osama Bin laden, ISIS, world news This image made from video posted on a militant website on Monday, April 29, 2019, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, being interviewed by his group’s Al-Furqan media outlet. (Al-Furqan media via AP)

On October 26, during a raid by US Special Forces in a small compound in Barisha village in northwestern Syria, the top leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Abu Bakr-al-Baghdadi blew himself in a dead-end tunnel. While the “reality and success” of the operation are being hailed as well as disputed by countries with boots on the ground in Syria — and the ISIS is yet to react — it is almost certain that Baghdadi is dead. As a “leader on the run” for more than five years, Baghdadi was more of a symbol for a (virtual) Caliphate. Yet, his killing will only be a short-term setback for the network.

Since the ISIS core had been preparing for this eventuality even while fighting to save the Caliphate, Baghdadi’s killing is not going to make a difference to the threats posed by ISIS. Soon enough, the ISIS core will anoint a new Caliph, to whom all the wilayas (branches) and extremists and supporters will readily offer allegiance (bayat) to, while paying rich tribute to the “fallen hero”. The ISIS network will also make serious efforts to mount “signature” attacks on chosen targets to prove its resilience, while local networks may mount smaller attacks, including lone-wolf attacks.

Within 18 months of the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in December 2011, the al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) captured large territories across Iraq and Syria and morphed itself into ISIS. On June 29, 2014, the group declared a Caliphate — a long cherished dream of global jihadis and anoinated a “descendant” of the Prophet, a doctorate holder, former prisoner at Camp Bucca and leader of AQI, Abu Bakr Baghdadi as the Caliph. Using slick propaganda on social media, the Caliphate attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including over 5,000 from the West.

Soon enough, riding high on bayats of extremists and terrorists from across the globe, ISIS announced “decentralised” wilayas and asked their supporters to join them if they could not travel to the Caliphate. This modus operandi paid rich dividends and has continued to keep the network going despite their losses. The US-led coalition launched Operation Inherent Resolve in October 2014 and cleared the last pocket of the Caliphate in Baghouz, Syria, on March 23.

Within less than a month, the ISIS claimed attacks in Sri Lanka — arguably the deadliest attacks after 9/11. On April 29, ISIS released the second video of Baghdadi. He hailed the revenge for Baghouz by “brothers in Sri Lanka”. The rare video of Baghdadi was released to assure the cadres that it could hit their enemies anywhere at will.

Over 25-30,000 ISIS cadres have survived and many foreign fighters have escaped the Iraq-Syria theatre. Thousands of fighters and family members are being held in the Kurdish areas of Syria. ISIS sleeper cells across Syria and Iraq have mounted hundreds of attacks this year. The decentralised wilayas, including in West Africa, the Philippiness, Egypt (Sinai), Yemen, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Libya have become more active and are showcasing successes on social media daily. The open propaganda forums have been replaced by “invitation only” links on social media, making detection much harder.

The ISIS core may or may not take time in hailing the “martyrdom” of Caliph I and anointing Caliph II — invoking the Islamic history of martyrdom of Caliphs by “traitors and enemies”. This will be much like the Afghan Taliban, which has been anointing their successive supreme leaders as the Amir-ul -Mominin. Since July-Aug 2019, the pro-ISIS social media has been circulating the name of a former Iraqi officer of the Baathist party, Al-Haj Abdullah Qardash, as in charge of day-to-day operations. He may well die or get captured. But it showed long-term planning by ISIS for its cadres. Given that ISIS boasted of Baghdadi’s lineage from the Prophet to build his aura, it is quite possible that the group may name a Caliph with similar credentials.

The situation in Syria has become far more complicated with the US changing its rules of engagement to only “guarding” oil fields from ISIS and chasing its counter-terror targets in Syria. The weakening of Syrian Democratic Force’s position vis a vis Turkey and the Assad regime will deplete its resources, hindering the capability to defeat ISIS. Coupled with sectarian faultlines, public protests in Iraq and Lebanon, US/Saudi-Iran tensions, the region offers fresh opportunity for recruitment to both the ISIS and al Qaeda networks, which are deeply entrenched.

The ISIS has attracted foreign fighters from South Asia, mainly Pakistanis, Afghans, Maldivians and Bangladeshis. Though not many were known to have gone from Sri Lanka, the Easter attacks showed potential of violence even by a small group of committed cadres with support of the ISIS network. In Bangladesh three years ago, ISIS did create an effective but small network, with active support of western nationals of Bangladeshi origin. The security apparatus has broken up the network, but Bangladesh remains vulnerable.

Though less than 100-200 Indians are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq and much less to Afghanistan to join ISIS, this creates potential for more recruitment as well as aiding attacks on Indian soil or interests. The fresh round of radicalisation and recruitment that ISIS will surely embark on under its new leader, will pose further threats to India as well as to South Asia. 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.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 31, 2019 under the title ‘ISIS after Baghdadi’. The writer is an IPS officer. Views are personal.

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