While conflicting reports emerged over the weekend of whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was injured in an air strike, the mere unfounded rumours generated about his fate emerges a critical juncture of the US-led air campaign. It has been exactly two months since this campaign was declared and more than 800 aerial sorties have been launched. In this time, questions have been asked as to why the US has avoided targeting and killing Baghdadi or other high profile leaders of ISIL, otherwise known as a “decapitation strike“.
First, the founder of the group that would evolve into ISIL, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in an air strike in 2006, but the success in targeting Zarqawi in this case was based on local intelligence on the ground, and a long painstaking intelligence gathering effort. It appears that the US and the Iraqi state do not have such an intelligence network to successfully target Baghdadi.
However, the attention generated by these rumours over the last weekend should generate an even more pressing question: Will ISIL and the “Islamic State” survive the death of its caliph if he is killed in the future? Furthermore, if the reports of Iraqi forces in control of the town of Baiji are confirmed, they will be in a position to make a move against the oil refinery in ISIL’s control. Will ISIL survive as it continues to lose territory in Iraq, particularly its lucrative oil facilities?
ISIL will prove to be tenacious, and the answer as to why has to do with its declaration of an Islamic State in the summer of 2014. Changing its name to the Islamic State was not merely a ploy in semantics. The declaration of the Islamic State was to prove that it had achieved what al-Qaeda failed to do. ISIL had been transformed from a terrorist group, led by a charismatic leader, to a terrorist group administrating territory. That transformation is what represented its final break from al-Qaeda, an organisation devoted to conducting spectacular acts of violence. The Islamic State was devoted to conducting banal acts of governance in conjunction with spectacular acts of violence, such as beheadings.
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ISIL’s legitimacy derives from its ability to project the trappings of statehood. It has used its media to brandish is credentials of statehood by establishing a bureaucracy, courts, an educational system and taxation. It seeks a monopoly on the use of organised violence in the area it controls.
This includes eliminating dissident tribes that could raise arms against the Islamic State, which explains the recent massacres of members of the Albu Nimr tribe.
It has paradoxically sought to create a homogeneous, transnational nation of believing Muslims by destroying the heterogeneity of the north of Iraq, which explains its mass expulsions of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis.
All that the Islamic State lacks is the legitimacy derived from mutual international recognition by other states, which it never sought in the first place. It also realised that states in the Muslims world resist its declaration of the Caliphate. Its legitimacy emerges from declaring a Caliphate and a state apparatus to sustain it, thus deriving legitimacy from a small, but devoted core of Muslims around the world, willing to leave their lives behind to travel and become citizens of the new Islamic State.
The charisma of Baghdadi has been channelled into a state structure that controls territory. His death in the future will not have a likely impact on the stable succession of a new caliphate based on past precedents. Even in its days when it lacked a state apparatus, the terrorist organisation that was the progenitor of the Islamic State demonstrated that it could handle the death of their leader and ensure a relatively stable succession.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq survived after Zarqawi was killed in 2006, and he was replaced by Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, and in April 2010 he was killed in a military strike. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was his replacement, demonstrating that this group has had an organisational history of ensuring smooth transitions of leadership.
A targeted assassination of Baghdadi will not spell the end of the Islamic State or even a defeat. His death will propel him into the pantheon of its martyrs, along with Zarqawi. However, contemplating this scenario also begs another question: Who could serve as the potential successor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to ensure this transition?
A targeted assassination of Baghdadi will not spell the end of the Islamic State or even a defeat. His death will propel him into the pantheon of its martyrs, along with Zarqawi.
The command structure of ISIL indicates a high preponderance of Iraqis in leadership positions, including veterans of the Iraqi military under the Baathist rule. They are all relatively obscure figures, but so was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Iraqi leadership of ISIL also serves as a quiet coup of the old guard from the Saddam Hussein government, where they found an effective structure to reassert their power. The death of Baghdadi would be a symbolic defeat for the Islamic State, but might be a tangible victory for the former officers of the Iraqi military.
If ISIL’s viability rests on its ability to deliver a state, making the death of Baghdadi irrelevant to its organisational success, what if that state began to unravel, either due to pressure from a sustained military campaign, the loss of its ability to charge rents from local Iraqis and the oil industry, or even armed resistance from local communities?
For that scenario to occur, the Iraqi state would have to recapture Mosul, which does not seem likely in the near term given the difficulty the new Iraqi military has had in waging urban combat. If one projects even farther in the future, what if ISIL lost all urban centres it controlled, including its de-facto capital in Raqqa, back in Syria? Even in that scenario it would not diminish the appeal of the Islamic State. Even when the group was on the run from 2008 to 2011, it branded itself an Islamic State. In those days, it promised that is was a vanguard to establish an Islamic State. In 2014, it delivered on that promise.
Second, expelling the Islamic State from its urban centres will not happen anytime soon. In the meanwhile, the Islamic State would have existed anywhere from a year to three years. That would be enough to give ISIL’s followers, the former citizens of the Islamic State, a tangible experience, demonstrating that an Islamic state under a caliph, which had only existed as a theory promised by al-Qaeda, could be established in the 21st century.
ISIL followers would have a reason to continue to fight to restore a former golden age. This is not the Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate, but the golden age of a Caliphate they created in their lifetime. This nostalgic era would have further been undermined by a coalition of western nations, comprador Sunni Muslim regimes, and three Shia-led governments in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. In defeat, they would have developed a narrative that they had established an Islamic State despite the vast array of enemies against it, and if they did it once, they could do it again.
If it suffers tactical defeats on the battlefield, if its leader Baghdadi or other top leaders are killed, or if it lost urban centres, the Islamic State could take any defeat and reframe it into a victory for its constituents, ironically giving it a skill that truly makes it like any other state in the world.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”