What would happen to ISIL if Baghdadi was really killed?

Published November 12th, 2014 - 10:40 GMT

Last week, American jets carried out an air strike on a convoy of ten Islamic State (Isis) trucks near the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq. Rumor has it – and, at this stage, it is only rumor – that a number of prominent Isis figures were killed or injured in the strike, among them the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Since then, speculation over the so-called caliph’s fate has been almost overwhelming, something not aided by misreporting based on statements from false Twitter accounts claiming to represent, among others, Isis spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and theIraqi Foreign Minister.

At this stage, it is impossible to know with any certainty who was killed in the strike. The Iraqi Interior Ministry’s claim that four emirs, two governors and one security chief died simply cannot be substantiated, let alone the rumours that al-Baghdadi has been hospitalized.

The international rumor mill aside, the weekend’s air strikes have raised some important questions about the Isis leadership. What, for example, would happen if al-Baghdadi was indeed killed? Who would replace him? Could Isis survive such a development?

A decapitation strike in which the so-called caliph lost his life would shatter the quasi-divine mystique surrounding him, not to mention that of the rest of the Isis leadership – they would be humanised. The death of al-Baghdadi, a man in whose image and reputation a huge amount of time  and effort has been invested, would be a huge symbolic loss for Isis, a great obstacle in its caliphate project, which has so thrived on success to date.

For many years now, Isis supporters have been developing a cult of personality for their leader, at the expense of potential candidates to be his successor. Hence, if he is killed, the Shura Council, tasked with designating the new caliph, would have the insurmountable task of identifying someone who would enjoy a similar level of popular legitimacy as al-Baghdadi. Certainly, there are other key figures in Isis about whom there is a certain level of charismatic mystique – Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Shaker Abu Waheeb andUmar al-Shishani among them – but none of them have all of the attributes necessary to hold the position Isis IS caliph.

So, while al-Baghdadi’s supporters have claimed that his death would not matter, that there are thousands of people who could quickly fill his shoes, the reality would be much different. Legitimacy is central to the Isis leadership model and requires the reputation that has been so carefully – and gradually – cultivated around the man.

On top of this, all pledges of allegiance are made to al-Baghdadi directly, not the group itself, and, in the event of his death, they are not binding. Hence, all those currently fighting for or supporting Isis would have to re-pledge allegiance to the new candidate, and it is very unlikely that all those allegiant to al-Baghdadi would coalesce behind the one designated to replace him. As such, we can be fairly confident that, while Isis would survive al-Baghdadi’s death, it would do so with greatly depleted ranks.

It is important to recognise that, even if the top echelons of the Isis leadership were eradicated tomorrow and the group fragmented into several constituent parts, the crisis in Iraq and Syria would continue to on the path it is now. After all, just as when other jihadist groups have lost leaders in the past, the ideology that drives Isis would continue to exist. Its present adherents would not retract their belief system overnight. As is stressed in Quilliam’s recent report on Isis, an idea cannot be bombed into obscurity and, hence, the group and the goals that motivate it, would not simply evaporate.

Hence, al-Baghdadi’s death could only be a beginning to the end of the crisis in the Middle East – there is no military solution. It must only be the beginning of a wider political change.

By Charlie Winter

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