Can ISIS maintain the ‘Caliphate’ without Baghdadi?

These fighters can easily translate the injury or loss of their leaders to tactical advantage

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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News reports that the United States-led coalition attacked successfully a 10-truck Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) convoy outside Mosul injured top leaders of ISIS including, as reports suggest, its leader and self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is significant. According to the reports, Baghdadi, was “critically wounded” in the American-led air strike that targeted the western Iraqi border town of al-Qaim.

The key question is how ISIS fighters will interpret the loss of the leadership and especially if al-Baghdadi is critically injured and ultimately dies. We must recall that al-Baghdadi was reportedly injured just months before.

We have a number of occasions where American airpower decapitated the leaderships of Islamist extremist terrorist groups.

The deaths of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki immediately come to mind. Yet the results of the high-level killings, as well as other targeted strikes on key planners and operators, seem to be limited. While such strikes provide instant gratification, the problem still remains.

Attacks and battles between terrorist groups and their enemies continue. As noted by many observers, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are still alive and well despite the loss of key leaders. The same can be said for ISIS and their adherents.

The wounding and potential loss of Baghdadi may be of more significance for his followers. Baghdadi, as “Caliph Ibrahim,” to maintain his religious foundation, needs to be of a whole body. If he loses a limb in his injuries, his credibility suffers. If he dies, the death would toss the entire concept of the legitimacy of the “Caliphate” on its head. ISIS discourse will likely need to be revised and new leaders will emerge. But clearly, from historical examples, succession in the historical caliphates was often a chaotic and vicious event.

Although there is a formal governmental structure of their “Caliphate,” these fighters can easily translate the injury or loss of their leaders to tactical advantage

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The key question is whether that will be true today. Yet, if a caliph dies, it is up to his adherents to be “free to do as they like.” Baghdadi himself said on the first day of Ramadan “I have been appointed (caliph) over you, even though I am not the best and the most morally excellent among you.” Time will tell.

ISIS’s structure makes it resilient to decapitating strikes. Although there is a formal governmental structure of their “Caliphate,” these fighters can easily translate the injury or loss of their leaders to tactical advantage. Their swarming attacks and capabilities on the battlefield may increase and more innocents will lose their lives.

With the group’s financial resources, which are still aplenty, progress can be made by buying new supporters. In addition, the battle-hardened veterans of ISIS, hardboiled from other conflicts over the past two decades, know how to mobilize their fighters in this scenario. In other theaters, their leaders have been slain and that has not stopped them from regrouping and launching new attacks. Baghdadi, for many fighters, is a supreme figure, and revenge will be foremost on their minds.

Agitated followers

The number of extremist groups from around the world who declared allegiance or bayat to the ISIS and al-Baghdadi will also likely become more agitated. A few months ago, in an unprecedented move, two branches of al-Qaeda's international organization, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), released a joint statement urging jihadists in Iraq and Syria to unite against their common enemy, America, “the head of infidelity.” A statement from Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi (KUN), a joint AQIM-Ansar al-Shariah Tunisia effort in support of the ISIS as a “Caliphate” reflects an international jihadist trend to boost ISIS in the face of the U.S.-led coalition.

Another group, the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria splintered from AQIM, pledged support to ISIS. In South Asia to the Far East, ISIS is gaining traction in the international extremist circles. There is support for ISIS, especially the formal offerings of allegiance, and reports about Muslim youth moving to Iraq and Syria to join the ISIS, as well as support from Maldives, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and others. The injury and perhaps passing of al-Baghdadi and senior ISIS leaders may ignite greater support for the group, perhaps more than the deaths of Bin Laden and Al-Awlaki.

Glimmer of optimism

However, there is a small glimmer of hope in this strike. The glimmer of optimism is - from American and coalition planners - that the attacks will mitigate ISIS capabilities by forcing dispersal of command and control, but also give, ironically, al-Qaeda affiliates and tribes an upper hand against the ISIS. Al-Qaeda movements never outwardly supported al-Baghdadi as a caliph calling it heresy.

It is possible that al-Qaeda, and al-Zawahiri himself will be overjoyed with this decapitation strike. ISIS killings of Iraqi Sunni tribal members may give an advantage to those tribes who can take advantage of the immediate situation in ISIS as the group launches fresh social media campaigns. Al-Nusra will also seek to benefit by conducting operations against ISIS.

Thus, by forcing a fight between the geo-located groups in the Levant may have a short term tactical advantage. But this assessment is speculation as one problem emerges: Let’s remember, “Caliph Ibrahim” is not the brains behind ISIS operations. That responsibility falls to his lieutenants that can be easily replaced in ISIS’s linear structure. According to an Arab official, the “Chechen Factor” in ISIS is powerful and these fighters know how to react, even against al-Qaeda affiliates and tribes. They can reorganize quickly and effectively in the near term.

The danger, of course, is what happens next. Clearly, there should be concern that the Sunni extremist movements will ignite retribution attacks on the interests of Coalition members responsible for the decapitation attack on ISIS. It is not the Arab street that will react; it is clearly the Sunni extremists whether affiliated to the ISIS or al-Qaeda.

More aggressive

There is also the fact that ISIS fighters in the Levant theater will become more aggressive in their tactics with the killing of other ethnicities and Christians. Moreover, there is the possibility that lone-wolf attacks will grow dramatically in Europe and North America and elsewhere that will gain the quick attraction of tens of thousands to the call of the Islamic Caliphate.

The rate of new recruits to ISIS since coalition airstrike began has been 1,000 fighters a month. The rate may now grow radically. Demonstration killings may be the weapon and statement of choice. “Traditional” bombings and attacks may very well become a norm too. In the Middle East, the areas where ISIS has attraction may help to form new “Emirates” such as in the Sinai and in Derna, Libya. In other words, there is the possibility for a boomerang effect.

If there was any time for countries where there should be an increase in vigilance, now is the time. This decapitation strike holds regional implications for the security of Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and the northern GCC are particularly vulnerable as well as Libya and Egypt. The call for an Arab military alliance in recent days is now paramount and must happen quickly. Plans for such an alliance to target extremists have been in the works for three years. Now is the time for the Arab states to operationalize the idea—fast.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Senior Advisor to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, UAE. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets: @tkarasik

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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