Speculation about the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has circulated since 2014, with both the US and Russia claiming at different times to have killed him. But US President Donald Trump’s decision yesterday to publicly confirm a US military raid appears to signal with high certainty that this time the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) has not been able to elude death.
While the media and various analysts have emphasised the importance of this development, al-Baghdadi’s demise will not impact the ability of ISIL to operate as a decentralised terrorist group in the near term. The leaders of the previous incarnations of ISIL were killed in 2006 and 2010 in Iraq, and yet the group has repeatedly re-emerged.
The day after al-Baghdadi’s death, ISIL appears to be slated for a comeback. While Trump is triumphantly celebrating a PR victory at a time when he is facing impeachment woes domestically, his foreign policy decisions in Syria are likely to facilitate ISIL’s regrouping and re-emergence.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose given name was Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri al-Samarrai, was born in 1971 in the city of Samarra, 130km north of Baghdad. His father is said to have preached at a local mosque. During the years of Saddam Hussein’s “faith campaign” after the 1991 Gulf War, a period during which the Iraqi state promoted a greater role for Islam in the public domain, al-Baghdadi enrolled in the Islamic University of Iraq in Baghdad.
During his studies, he was introduced to the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood, but eventually gravitated towards Salafism. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he was arrested, reportedly while visiting a friend affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
During his incarceration at Camp Bucca, a detention facility in the desert near the Iraq-Kuwait border, he led prayers and gave Friday sermons. He also came into contact with Haji Bakr, the nom de-guerre of Samir al-Khlifawi, a former Baathist intelligence officer who had joined AQI as well as other followers of the organisation. Al-Baghdadi grew closer to the AQI and became committed to its cause.
When he was released in late 2004, after less than a year in detention, he became a member of AQI and began to rise through its ranks.
On June 7, 2006, the leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, was killed in an airstrike on a small village 60km north of Baghdad. He was succeeded by Egyptian explosives expert Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who deemed it necessary to have an Iraqi lead the insurgency in Iraq. He promoted Iraqi-born al-Qaeda member Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the leader of the newly-declared Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which had ostensibly been designed to be an umbrella of Iraqi insurgent groups.
Abu Bakr gained the trust of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and climbed the ranks to reach the nine-man Mujahidin Shura Council, the group’s highest executive decision-making body. Both al-Masri and Abu Omar were killed in April 2010 during a joint raid between US and Iraqi forces near Tikrit. Haji Bakr, who had since been released from Camp Bucca and become the head of ISI’s military council, backed Abu Bakr to become its next leader for his religious credentials; the Shura Council agreed.
It was a smooth transition of leadership and al-Baghdadi managed to rebuild the ISI, which had been on the verge of defeat with only a handful of followers remaining within its ranks. In 2019, his successor could do the same, despite the weakened state ISIL currently finds itself in.
Al-Baghdadi’s biggest achievement during his time as an ISI/ISIL leader was scoring a major religious victory that other regional insurgent actors had failed to achieve: the declaration of a caliphate over a territory under full physical control.
Neither the Liberation Party (Hizb ut-Tahrir), a pan-Islamist movement founded in Jerusalem in 1953, nor Osama bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda were able to achieve their declared goal of establishing a caliphate before him. Al-Baghdadi was able to build a force powerful enough to take control of large swathes of territory and declare himself its caliph, thereby capturing the imagination of thousands of Muslims who travelled to Syria and Iraq to live under what they thought was true Islamic rule.
Ironically, while Trump has deprived these followers of their caliph, he has also presented them with an opportunity for a comeback.
His decision to withdraw military forces from Syria, giving a de-facto blessing to the Turkish incursion into Syrian Kurdish-held territories, has diverted security resources from prisons holding ISIL members and families, with reports that breakouts have already occurred.
Al-Qaeda and ISIL’s rise in Syria and Iraq were preceded by the release of former insurgents from prisons. In the summer of 2011, the regime in Damascus released various Islamist fighters it had captured in previous years, many of whom had fought in Iraq’s insurgency in the 2000s. That laid the ground work for the emergence of a number of Islamist armed groups, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate al-Nusra Front.
Then, two years later, ISIL fighters launched a raid on two Iraqi prisons near Baghdad, freeing close to 500 captured comrades. Those freed detainees increased the pool of commanders and foot soldiers that were essential for the group’s offensive into Mosul almost exactly a year later.
While Trump can boast of a victory against ISIL, it is hardly a decisive one. Al-Baghdadi gave ISIL’s followers a tangible experience of an Islamic state established in the 21st century – something that had previously only been discussed in theory.
As a result, the remaining members of the terrorist organisation and its future followers have a clear vision of what they are fighting for – the resurrection of al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, which given the instability in the region, will remain within their reach.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.