ISIS’ Baghdadi is no Osama bin Laden… yet

While many are dubbing the leader of so-called Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new Osama bin Laden, there are stark differences in strategy and leadership approach between the two. Both have forged a distinct path for each organization, it seems so far.

Baghdadi made headlines this week by announcing a Caliphate (an Islamic State), the first since 1924 when Turkish leader Mustafa Attaturk abolished that tradition. The announcement was followed by a roughly 20-minute audio from the “Caliph” himself, in which he pledged to conquer Rome, inaugurated a “new era” and invited jihadists to take up arms and flock to his state.

A more public Osama bin Laden

In theory, the overarching ideological trends of both al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overlap by espousing extreme militant Jihadism and terrorism against Western interests, Arab governments and showing readiness to kill “apostate” and Shiite Muslims. In practice, however, ISIS’ Baghdadi is following a different playbook than bin Laden’s and taking political strides that the former al-Qaeda leader, killed in 2011, might have disputed.

ISIS is building its base support on ruthless radical foreign fighters that lacks the local component in places like Syria, and is benefitting from short-term alliances with the tribes against Nouri Maliki in Iraq

Joyce Karam

Camille Tawil, an expert on militant Islamists and author of the book “Brother in Arms: the Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists,” told Al Arabiya News that Bin Laden was more media savvy then Baghdadi. While there are only two public photos of Baghdadi, “Bin Laden had a long time of exposure to the media, as far as his early days of Afghanistan in the late 1980s.” Tawil speaks of a “charm offensive” that Bin Laden led in the 1990s, inviting Western journalists to his cave in Afghanistan and releasing videos of training camps and video messages to his followers.

Baghdadi “has never granted an interview to any one” and even “his real name is not confirmed” says Tawil. There are several aliases used by the group, and the name Abu Dua released by the U.S. government rewarding $10 million for his capture.

Strategy differences

Bin Laden’s approach in leading al-Qaeda was more cognizant of political realities than Baghdadi’s. Tawil contends that “bin Laden had to take into consideration that he was leading a global organization...and this meant making compromises, such as dealing with the Iranian regime, the Yemeni regime among others.” He adds that “Baghdadi does not seem willing to follow this path” and instead chooses to fight many groups and states at once including Jabhat Nusra, al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

ISIS is also building its base support on ruthless radical foreign fighters that lacks the local component in places like Syria, and is benefitting from short-term alliances with the tribes against Nouri Maliki in Iraq. It is hard to see how Baghdadi’s caliphate could survive in the long term, if the same tribes that helped him in Iraq reconcile with the government in Baghdad, or if the moderate rebels gain strengths and fight back in Syria.

“Bin Laden compromised with Shiite Iran when al-Qaeda had members held there” says Tawil, while ISIS refused to do the same and Baghdadi declared a war on the “Persians” as well in his last audio recording. Tawil recalls that in 2006, former notorious al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musaab Zarqawi was “targeting Shias in Iraq, prompting al-Qaeda Central in Waziristan to send him a warning a few months before his death.” The central leadership of al-Qaeda was “upset with Zarqawi’s bloody campaign against the Shias and the way he was beheading people in front of cameras.” These reasons are echoed again today as many Islamic groups, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, rejected Baghdadi’s Caliphate, and went as far as labeling him among “Khawarij.” The term refers to a group in Islam who defied the Prophet and tried to kill his companions.

The differences between bin Laden and Baghdadi are not “in terms of their interpretation of the Sharia, but that al-Qaeda sometimes seems willing to compromise in a way ISIS doesn’t.” This aspect can hold back ISIS from expanding and achieving al-Qaeda’s pre-2003 stature, and it would limit its threat from a U.S. perspective to attracting foreign fighters and establishing safe havens without capability to stage another 9/11.

Tawil does not see Baghdadi as having the ability to emulate Bin Laden. He points out, however, to a clear advantage that the new “Caliph” has which bin Laden didn’t: swathes of land between Iraq and Syria on which he created his Islamic State. If this advantage holds, Tawil warns that “with time Baghdadi may probably become more popular than bin Laden among the jihadists for succeeding where his former boss failed: creating an Islamic State.”


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
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