ISIL leader was about to relocate to the Syrian town of Jarablus when the US commando operation earmarked him.
World leaders and regional analysts have warned of the remaining threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group – even after the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
According to US President Donald Trump, the ISIL chief died during a night-time raid by US special forces in Barisha, a village in Syria‘s northwestern province of Idlib. Al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest after running into a dead-end tunnel beneath a compound, killing himself and three of his children, Trump said on Sunday.
Under al-Baghdadi’s command, ISIL became one of the most brutal armed groups in modern history and, at its peak, its self-declared caliphate covered territory across Iraq and Syria roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom.
Harnessing the internet and encouraging followers from different parts of the world to join them, ISIL fighters carried out mass killings, beheadings and rape campaigns in Iraq and Syria, and inspired attacks beyond the Middle East. In the following years, a series of offensives gradually stripped the group of its territory, with its fighters losing their final scrap of land in Syria in March this year.
Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, said al-Baghdadi’s death was “mostly of symbolic importance”.
“I’ve said for years that this organisation has become somewhat of a virtual caliphate; a franchise that other groups can buy into and basically sell around the world,” he told Al Jazeera, describing ISIL as a “virtual community” that has been “leaderless”.
“The killing of the so-called self-proclaimed caliph doesn’t make any difference in that because the different groups that existed and continued to exist after the collapse of the physical caliphate will continue to fight in the underground in Syria and Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere,” he said.
While details surrounding the operation that led to al-Baghdadi’s death are still emerging – and his death has been announced many times before – the US declaration has brought up the question of his succession.
ISIL social media channels have not confirmed Trump’s announcement, nor alluded to potential successors, but Iraqi political analyst Hiwa Osman said it would not be long before the name of a new leader emerged.
“Looking at the track record of these radical groups, when [al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi was killed, the group was very quick in appointing another person to be in charge; when Osama bin Laden was killed, al-Qaeda was also very quick to appoint someone else in his place – I think we will hear the same thing from ISIL,” he told Al Jazeera.
Analysts said the list of potential successors appeared to be short, with Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on ISIL, noting that two potential candidates stand out: Abu Othman al-Tunsi and Abu Saleh al-Juzrawi, who is also known as Hajj Abdullah.
The first – a Tunisian national – heads ISIL’s Shura Council, a legislative and consultative body, al-Hashemi told AFP news agency.
The second – a Saudi – runs the group’s so-called Delegated Committee, an executive body, he said.
These “possible options” would nonetheless be controversial, according to al-Hashemi, because neither is a Syrian or Iraqi national, who make up the bulk of ISIL’s landless fighting force.
“This could lead to defections,” he said.
Aymenn Jawad Tamimi, an academic and expert on armed fighters, also identified the elusive Hajj Abdullah as a potential successor.
“He turns up in leaked ISIL documents as a deputy of Baghdadi and to my knowledge, he is not dead,” Tamimi told AFP.
“Apart from some texts that mention Hajj Abdullah, not much is known about him except that he was the emir of the Delegated Committee which is the general governing body of ISIL.”
Speculation has abounded around a senior ISIL figure known as Abdullah Qardash – a former Iraqi military officer jailed with al-Baghdadi in the US-run Iraqi prison of Camp Bucca.
Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Turkey’s Reyhanli on the Syrian border, referred to a months-old statement attributed to the ISIL propaganda arm Amaq but never officially adopted by the group that said Qardash had been selected as leader even before Trump declared al-Baghdadi dead.
“But we don’t know yet of how much of ISIL’s inner circle – the Shura – remains, if Abdullah Qardash is still alive, whether there is infighting,” he said.
“Much of ISIL’s leadership has already been wiped out from Iraq and Syria. Many analysts have suggested that this is going to be a very different kind of succession that al-Baghdadi has probably envisioned,” he added.
Tamimi and al-Hashemi both said the statement on Qardash’s promotion was fake.
Citing Iraqi intelligence sources, al-Hashemi said that Qardash had been dead since 2017.
“Qardash’s daughter is currently held by Iraqi intelligence,” he said. “Both her and other relatives have confirmed that he died in 2017.”
Al-Hashemi also said that Qardash – a Turkmen from Iraq’s Tal Afar region – would not qualify as “caliph” because he is not from the Quraysh tribe – the same tribe as Prophet Muhammad.
He said belonging to the Quraysh tribe is seen as a prerequisite for becoming a caliph – a brief biography of al-Baghdadi posted to online forums in 2014 had traced his lineage to the Quraysh tribe.
Whoever emerges as leader will inherit the difficult task of leading a frayed organisation that has been reduced to scattered sleeper cells.
Divisions have widened within ISIL ranks in recent months, with some supporters blaming al-Baghdadi for the demise of the “caliphate” in March and for being absent when it died.
Hasan Haniyeh, an Amman-based analyst, said al-Baghdadi’s death will not result in “any substantive change” for ISIL, arguing it might even bring some relief to the group because of the difficult task of protecting him.
“Al-Baghdadi, as a figurehead, had become a burden on the organisation since the group’s defeats in Iraq and Syria,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think ISIL will continue on but will revert to being an organisation, not a state or caliphate … The group’s multiple structures will survive him and will transform itself in the aftermath of his death.”
Nate Rosenblatt, a researcher and expert on armed groups, said with al-Baghdadi removed, “ISIL affiliates have a chance to switch allegiances or simply not re-pledge their allegiance to Baghdadi’s successor.”
This may give a boost to rival armed groups in Syria such as Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and the Hurras al-Deen group, he told AFP. Both have been trying to root out ISIL locally.
Fight goes on
Meanwhile, world leaders warned that the fight against the armed group was not over yet.
Russia on Monday offered guarded praise of the US military operation, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declining to say if Washington had informed Moscow about it in advance: “If this information is confirmed, we can talk about a serious contribution by the president of the United States to the fight against international terrorism.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said al-Baghdadi’s death was a major blow against ISIL but “the fight continues to finally defeat this terrorist organisation”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We will work with our coalition partners to bring an end to the murderous, barbaric activities of Daesh [Arabic acronym for ISIL] once and for all.”
In Southeast Asia, an important focus for ISIL, officials said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the group’s ideology.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of Asia’s most organised armed groups, said they were braced for retaliation by ISIL loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks.
Though al-Baghdadi’s death will unsettle ISIL, it remains capable and dangerous, said Delfin Lorenzana, defence secretary of the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken hold in its troubled Mindanao region.
“This is a blow to the organisation considering al-Baghdadi’s stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback considering the depth and reach of the organisation worldwide,” Lorenzana said. “Somebody will take his place.”