Analysts warn that extremist movements have repeatedly shown resilience after deaths of key leaders
The death of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a new blow to the extremist group that once controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria but in no way marks an end to the threat posed by the jihadists.
Analysts said I.S. and the extremist jihadist movement have over the last one-and-a-half decades repeatedly shown resilience after the death of key leaders and their militants, battle-hardened by years of fighting, remain in place around the world. The group may have been ready for the death of Baghdadi and after an initial adjustment period of a few months could even use it as a rallying case for launching new attacks, they added.
President Donald Trump said the jihadist chief died by setting off a suicide vest during a raid by U.S. special forces in northwestern Syria.
Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor in Middle East studies at Sciences-Po in Paris, said his death represented a huge setback for I.S., which at the height of its success in 2014 proclaimed a new “caliphate” across parts of Iraq and Syria. “But it is not certain that such a symbolic loss will fundamentally affect the operational direction of Daesh, which has long been in the hands of seasoned professionals,” he told AFP. “In this respect, his demise could in the long run have even less impact than the killing of Osama bin Laden did on Al Qaeda.”
Bin Laden, who masterminded the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States, was killed in an American raid in Pakistan in May 2011. But his death did not stop Al Qaeda affiliates staging attacks and taking part in conflicts across the world, such as the Al-Nusra front group in northern Syria, or the development of I.S. itself into a global extremist network.
“The most likely outcome is that the death of Baghdadi leads to a moment of silence and a pause in terror attacks,” Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based specialist on extremist movements, told AFP. This was the case after the killing in 2010 of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the former head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, from which I.S. emerged, he said. The Al Qaeda group needed some four months to “re-activate its operations.”
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi built up the I.S. group from 2003 while he was jailed in the giant U.S.-run Iraqi prison of Camp Bucca. There, he met several former army and security officials from the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein who would form the initial core of the group. The extremists he led initially worked within the framework of Al Qaeda but then Baghdadi distanced himself from the extremist network founded by bin Laden.
After reaching a peak of success in 2014 the territory under its control in Iraq and Syria was gradually eaten away, as anti-jihadist forces staged a comeback. The so-called caliphate was declared defeated in Syria by a coalition of forces including Kurdish militia in March 2019.
Baghdadi made his only confirmed public appearance in July 2014 at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the captured Iraqi city of Mosul, urging Muslims around the world to pledge allegiance to the caliphate. He then disappeared from sight, only resurfacing in a video in April. Wearing a wiry grey and red beard and with an assault rifle at his side, he encouraged followers to “take revenge” after the group’s territorial defeat.
While welcoming Baghdadi’s death as a milestone in the fight against terror, European leaders emphasized that his group had not been entirely vanquished, in contrast to Trump’s gung-ho rhetoric. “The battle against the evil of Daesh is not yet over,” warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. French Defense Minister Florence Parly vowed to “continue the fight relentlessly” against the group.
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group which follows jihadist media, said the history of the jihadist movement showed it was able to overcome the deaths of leaders such as the former chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006. “ISIS has illustrated its operational resiliency, and will definitely capitalize on Baghdadi’s death for recruitment and calls for attacks,” she wrote on Twitter.