ISIS Is An Ideology, And It’s Not Going Away Just Because Baghdadi Is Dead

ISIS Is An Ideology, And It’s Not Going Away Just Because Baghdadi Is DeadISIS flags being displayed in Kashmir - Representative Image (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • ISIS is an idea, and a dangerously living one at that. Killing its head is only the beginning of the war.

    What’s needed is to find a way to destroy that idea, as representative snakeheads will keep popping up.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s chief, was killed in an operation by the United States’s Delta Force personnel in Northwestern Syria’s Idlib province on Saturday, 27 October.

President Donald Trump said in a televised address that he died ‘like a dog, crying and whimpering’. Not long after Trump’s televised address, news broke that Baghdadi’s right-hand man and the ISIS spokesman, Al Muhajir, had also been killed in an operation by the country’s Central Intelligence Agency.

These two deaths within a day of each other are being seen as a critical blow to the Islamic State. This has followed the fall of the ISIS caliphate earlier this year, when the US-backed Kurds’ Syrian Democratic Forces retook the Syrian city of Baghuz.

The question now is this: Does the fall of the caliphate and deaths of Baghdadi and Al-Muhajir mean the ISIS is down?

While Baghdadi’s killing is definitely significant, as Newsweek, the American magazine that first broke the news of the American operation targeting Baghdadi, reported, it has been a while since Baghdadi has been more of a figurehead in the ISIS hierarchy.

Earlier this year, there was news that Baghdadi had appointed Abdullah Qardesh as his successor in the light of his declining health.

Since then, Qardesh, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army and nicknamed ‘Professor’, has been said to be the Islamic State’s de facto leader.

Newsweek quoted an intelligence official from the region as saying, “Baghdadi was a figurehead. He was not involved in operations or day-to-day affairs. All Baghdadi did was say yes or no — no planning.”

The group has now formally announced successors to both Baghdadi and Al Muhajir. In an audio message on 31 October, the group declared Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as the new chief and Abu Hamza al-Qurashi as the new spokesman.

The message was attributed to the latter. Here, it may be noted the earlier news about Abdullah Qardesh as Baghdadi's successor was suspected by some experts to be fake, as Al Jazeera reported.

However, experts have now noted that the names of both the new chief and spokesman are very generic and are not real. So while there is a name, no one really knows the person behind the name.

So while Baghdadi, the face of the ISIS for long, is down, the group does have a new leader, or has already had one for some time if the news about Abdullah Qardesh was correct.

Either way, the group has long expanded beyond Iraq and Syria and its central leadership in recent years and it has decentralised to the extent that it has now come to have ‘affiliates’ across the world — including in India — that fight in their respective regions in the name of ISIS.

Not just ‘lone wolf’ attacks, ISIS has long mastered what experts call ‘remote-controlled attacks’.

These are the sort of attacks in which handlers are situated in far-off places such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, and, in which, writes The New York Times’s Rukmini Callimachi, “violence [is] conceived and guided by [ISIS] operatives in areas controlled by the Islamic State whose only connection to the would-be attacker [recruit] is the internet.’

Rukmini wrote that many of the attacks in Asia and Europe that were initially considered ‘lone wolf’ attacks were actually found to be ‘remote-controlled attacks’.

Previously, as Rukmini wrote, going to Syria and fighting there for ISIS was a ‘spiritual obligation’, described as ‘hijrah’, the Arabic word for the Prophet’s journey out of Mecca.

Now, the group has refocussed its plans from asking those subscribing to their jihadi vision to fight for them in Syria to attack and fight for the group wherever they are based.

The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, which killed over 250, were also carried out by Islamic State affiliates that had only carried the bombing in ISIS’s name by swearing allegiance to the group.

In the Philippines, the group’s affiliate had virtually won a city from the government and the government had to mount a full-fledged offensive to retake it from the affiliate.

About the Islamic State’s presence and operations in India as per their revamped approach, an official told Rahul Pandita, “Ordinarily, a mortal would say: I need God. But IS handlers are reaching out to people from thousands of miles away and telling them: Hey, God needs you.”

The Amroha module (in Western Uttar Pradesh) busted last year best illustrates how precise these remotely guided operations can be. ISIS handlers, based abroad and through a veil of anonymity via encrypted messaging applications, provided radicalised recruits the technical know-how to make bombs.

In a case from Hyderabad, reported by Rukmini for The Times, ISIS handlers even remotely arranged handguns for their recruits and guided them to retrieve it.

The Islamic State now has a well-established presence in India. Several modules have been busted, most notably in the South, that has been the biggest headache so far, with earlier Kerala topping the list of ISIS affiliates, and now Tamil Nadu.

As in Afghanistan, ISIS also announced a province in India, called Wilayah of Hind.

Rahul Pandita wrote in OPEN:

Security agencies in India now fear that it will trigger a new wave of individuals, or group of individuals, getting virtually motivated by IS handlers from far away, to carry out small and big attacks on Indian soil. The director of the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation has said that online radicalisation is becoming a ‘bigger and bigger problem.

Ever since ISIS began losing turf in the Middle East, as this author wrote last year, its fighters have been redeploying in South Asia.

The unstable Afghanistan and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border can be their transit point to the Indian mainland.

As the Taliban gains an upper hand in Afghanistan, and Taliban-ISIS tussle intensifies, ISIS fighters are again expected to redeploy, and Taliban’s long-time friend and India’s full-time headache, Pakistan, would be more than glad to facilitate their transit from Afghanistan to Kashmir.

As for post-Baghdadi ISIS, experts have voiced concerns.

Kabir Taneja, a fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of an upcoming book on the ISIS, raised concerns about what’s transpiring within the group.

Noting that both Baghdadi and his right hand Al Muhajir were killed in territories in Syria not associated with the group, he wrote:

This in itself raises questions on what was transpiring within IS ranks. Was Baghdadi looking at some sort of compromise with other jihadist groups? Was he planning to slip into Turkey? There are more questions than answers available at the moment.

This is also where the deaths of Baghdadi and his right hand man are significant, even if their operational significance is limited and questionable. Taneja wrote for ORF:

‘More than Baghdadi’s operational relevance, specifically after the loss of territory that the group held, it is the loss of the ideologue, leader, and the point of singularity in a chaotic civil war in Syria where multiple other factions and players, domestic and international alike, found common ground in the urgency to defeat the Islamic State. In this strange world, the levels of violence brought in by ISIS were unpalatable even to other jihadist groups.

Some experts suggested that this may bolster regional affiliates. Colin P Clarke and Amarnath Amarsingam wrote for Foreign Policy:

The death of Baghdadi will likely weaken the Islamic State’s command and control network and cause some of its affiliates to either assert more independence or retreat back into the localised conflicts they were previously engaged in.

Times have changed. The loss of the physical caliphate and the elimination of its leadership does not erode the group’s potency.

As this author highlighted in a previous piece, ISIS runs on an idea, an idea of an Islamic state the world over based on the regressive brand of Saudi Islam, and as long as that idea remains, and those preaching and those subscribing to that idea remain, the group and its potency will remain.

Therefore, while Baghdadi’s death is definitely significant, both as a loss of leadership and that of a leadership cult, the group is there to stay and its potency is going nowhere.

General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, the US Central Command head, best sums it thus:

ISIS is first and last an ideology, so we’re under no illusions that it’s going to go away just because we killed Baghdadi. It will remain.

Madhur Sharma is a post-graduate student of journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and a history graduate from Delhi University. He tweets at @madhur_mrt.


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