As death rumors swirl around Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it would be a mistake to underestimate his role within ISIS itself and on the global Jihadi front at large. Baghdadi is the closest Jihadist figure today to fill Osama Bin Laden's shoes bringing ideological as well as strategic strengths to his organization.
While there is no U.S. confirmation that Baghdadi is either wounded or dead, projecting a low impact of his demise misses key aspects of his leadership and persona that prompted the rise of ISIS in the first place. In the event of Baghdadi's death, ISIS undoubtedly won't be finished but its victorious momentum that it has been building since June would be significantly undercut and the movement will no longer be perceived as invincible. Replacing Baghdadi won't be an easy task, however, given what he brings to the table in stage presence, religiosity, Iraqi tribal roots and political methodology.
‘Bin Laden’s heir’
Even before we had heard from Baghdadi in his only public appearance in Mosul on July 5, the capture of the Iraqi city and the skyrocketing rise of ISIS led prominent Washington Post columnist David Ignatius to dub him as “the true heir to Osama Bin Laden.” One can argue that Baghdadi went a step further than Bin Laden by claiming territory then declaring a so-called Caliphate and an Islamic state.
While Bin Laden was more careful and deliberate in maneuvering regional politics, Baghdadi follows a more ruthless and savage playbookJoyce Karam
Baghdadi’s speech in Mosul mosque and his audio message on the eve of Ramadan days prior to that, tell of a refined speaker, and one who similar to Bin Laden, is calm, humble and at the same time treacherous in his approach. The 44 year old son of Samara told his audience in that sermon “I’m no better than you. Advise me when I err and follow me if I succeed. And assist me against the false deities.” His thugs killed the imam of the mosque right after they captured the city. Unlike al-Qaeda’s Ayman Zawahiri, and Jabhat al-Nusra leader Mohamed al-Golani, Baghdadi can command an audience and excel in stage presence. While that might sound trivial, this quality has become a rarity when contextualized in today’s Arab world. Except for Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, very few in the Arab world today are good orators or have eloquent grip of the Arabic language. Baghdadi’s Mosul speech was not read from prepared remarks, but was delivered in perfect Arabic.
Baghdadi, or Dr. Abu Dua as his nom de guerre goes, brings to his portfolio a PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Baghdad, and was born into a family of preachers. This attribute helped the so-called Caliph in overshadowing frail and outdated Zawahiri, who is a doctor in training, and his appearances lack the media craft that ISIS orchestrates for Baghdadi. It also puts him in a different light from his predecessor Abu Musaab Zarqawi who was seen more of a cold-blooded gangster. Baghdadi is ”more violent, more virulent, more anti-American” than Zawahiri a U.S. official told the Washington Post, and according to The Independent, he is very organized, methodical and strategic who reviews annual reports of Iraqi provinces under the group's control.
While Bin Laden was more careful and deliberate in maneuvering regional politics, for instance not going too far against Iran and not massacring Shiites, Baghdadi follows a more ruthless and savage playbook. His strategy is focused on rallying the disenfranchised Sunni base, exploiting political and economic grievances of the locals, and building on the leadership vacuum regionally. He combines some of Bin Laden’s aura with the skills of Anwar Awlaki, recognizing the significance of foreign recruitments and outcasting Al-Qaeda in less than six months by reaching 15,000 foreign recruits.
Stands out within ISIS
The biography of the ISIS Caliph published by Site Intel Group reveals key aspects of why Baghdadi has an edge over his equally ferocious ISIS members. His Iraqi background growing up in Samara and with strong tribal credentials, in addition to being detained by U.S. forces in Bucca Camp in 2005, and a reported Jihadist resume of eight years carried him to the helm of the terrorist group, with a $10 million bounty on his head by U.S. Department of Justice.
Highlighting his tribal background as a “descendant from the tribes of the Badriyeen (al-Bobadri) that are Radhawiyyah, Husseiniyyah, Hashimite, Qurashiyah, Nazariyah, and Adnaniyah,” is essential to ISIS in marketing him to the locals of Anbar and Mosul. Further emphasizing the tribal component, Baghdadi’s biography even touts his mother as “one of the notables of the Bobadri tribe, loves religion, and calls for decency and goodness.” Being detained by the U.S. from 2005 to 2009 solidified his anti-Americanism and introduced him to other detainees who sit on ISIS' Shura Council today. But mostly, Baghdadi’s religious background, as a “preacher, a former educator”, stands out in contrast with his fellow ISIS leaders who are floated as potential successors.
Baghdadi’s two deputies Abu Muslim al-Turkmani and Abu al-Ali Anbari, don’t have the religious appeal that Baghdadi commands. They were both former generals in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein, and pitting them as potential leaders of ISIS if Baghdadi is dead, voids the group from the religious semblance that the current “Caliph” possesses. Other names such as Abu Musab al-Suri and ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, while skilled in the Islamic narrative, their Syrian background at a time when ISIS is more focused on Iraq, and their lack of deep tribal network, could complicate matters in Anbar for ISIS.
Baghdadi’s fate and whereabouts after last weekend’s airstrikes will add to his enigma without promising a definitive answer anytime soon. His ruthless, invisible yet decisive leadership of ISIS however, earned him the title of most powerful Jihadist today, and adds more complexity to finding a replacement.
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