The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder leader of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, is a signal moment in the fight against terrorism, at least in West Asia. Baghdadi, who announced the formation of his “Caliphate” from Mosul’s Grand Mosque in July 2014, blew himself up in an underground tunnel in a Syrian village where he was hiding when he was surrounded by U.S. special forces. In the few years he led the IS, the 48-year-old Baghdadi had overseen the rise and retreat of perhaps the most brutal terrorist machinery of our time.
Born in Iraq’s Samarra into a Salafi family, Baghdadi, whose real name was Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri, did his primary education in his hometown and higher studies in Baghdad. He graduated and finished his doctoral research in the Saddam Centre for the Reciting of the Quran, which was established by the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. His initial political activism was with the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Brotherhood stood for mainstream political activism, Baghdadi was more attracted towards the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the radical Islamist scholar who was hanged in Egypt in 1966. Qutb is considered the guru of modern Salafi-Jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He referred to the Brotherhood as “people of words, not action”.
When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi built al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as a powerful, sectarian, violent Sunni extremist force from the ruins of the Iraq destroyed by the American invasion, Baghdadi established contacts with the AQI. In 2004, he was arrested in Fallujah where he went to meet a friend who was on America’s wanted list. He was transferred to Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run detention centre in southern Iraq. During his 10-month stay in Bucca, Baghdadi emerged as a spiritual leader of the inmates. Some of the inmates recalled him as an energetic man with deep knowledge on Islam and a craze for football (he was called the ‘Maradona of Camp Bucca’). In Bucca, Baghdadi established a network of both Saddam-era military leaders and Islamist radicals, who would rise as the top command of the IS in a few years.
After Zarqawi and two of his successors (Abu Ayub al-Misri and Omar al-Baghdadi) were killed by American attacks, the leadership of a weakened AQI came to Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s hands. The group had already renamed itself as the Islamic State in Iraq, revealing its ambitions for power. When civil crisis broke out in Syria in 2011 and most of the Syrian President’s regional rivals turned against him through their proxies, Baghdadi found an opportunity to regroup his organisation. He despatched a group of jihadists across the border to fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. This group, under the leadership of Abu Mohammad al-Julani, would become Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda branch of Syria. The IS is a breakaway faction of al-Nusra. But under Baghdadi’s leadership, the IS grew fast by attracting thousands of young Muslims from around the world and expanding the reach of the Caliphate quickly, from eastern Syria to northwestern Iraq. Baghdadi practically erased the border between Iraq and Syria and declared himself as the new transnational leader of jihadism.
How did the Caliphate fall?
The IS motto was permanent expansion of its borders which turned almost everyone in the region against the group. The fall began in Kobane, the Syrian border town, in early 2015, when Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) militias defeated the IS. After that, the YPG took back most of the border region from the IS such as Tal Abyad and Manbij, with help from the U.S. In central Syria, the IS was stopped in the outskirts of the ancient city Palmyra by the government forces. In Iraq, they faced resistance from the Iraqi army and Shia militias. Surrounded by enemies, the IS remained concentrated on the core of its territory, spread from Der Ezzor in eastern Syria to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. But after its expansion was stopped, the U.S.-allied troops started attacking this core. The Syrian Democratic Forces, primarily comprised the YPG rebels, attacked the IS in Syria while in Iraq, the Iraqi Army, Iran-trained Shia militias and the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan led the charge. They liberated all the major cities such as Raqqa, Der Ezzour, Falujjah, Ramadi and Mosul one by one, with help from the U.S. Air Force. By mid-2018, the IS Caliphate was physically destroyed, and its soldiers were on the run. The death of Baghdadi is yet another blow to the group.
What’s next for IS?
While the IS is certainly on the backfoot now, its insurgency is not defeated yet. The death of Zarqawi did not bring an end to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The death of Osama bin Laden did not mean that al-Qaeda central was finished. The death of Baghdadi should also be seen in this larger historical background. There’s a difference between setback and defeat. The IS is primarily an insurgency that tried to establish a proto-state, not the other way around. That’s why when its proto-state, the Caliphate, came under attack, the IS went back into its insurgency roots. The organisational structure, which is largely decentralised with autonomous cells taking their own tactical decisions, also means that the group will survive the loss of its leaders. Even after it lost territories, IS cells continued to carry out terror attacks in Iraq and Syria. As long as Iraq and Syria remain chaotic and lawless, the IS remains would continue to find opportunities to strike a comeback. The group also has loyalist factions and affiliates in different parts of the world. The Boko Haram in Nigeria is an IS affiliate. The group has a wilayat (province) in Afghanistan. It has operational units in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. All these suggests, the threats from the IS are far from over despite the losses the group suffered in the recent past.