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Experts: Whither the Islamic State after Baghdadi?

On October 26, 2019, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi died during a U.S. special operations raid in Idlib, Syria. Baghdadi’s death left the Islamic State bereft of the man who turned the group into the world’s most infamous terrorist organization. Experts sounded off on Twitter in the days after his death to analyze its impact, not just on the Islamic State, but also on the global jihadist movement. 

Baghdadi’s death was significant:

Hassan Hassan, Center for Global Policy: “In some ways, Baghdadi’s death could be more significant than that of bin Laden in 2011. OBL killing was of course more directly important for the US, but his search took too long, a decade after 9/11. Baghdadi’s death is after caliphate end & could thus be more consequential. That ISIS could survive his death isn’t as straightforward as it widely seems. It could change a lot of things. We just know how the group *could* survive it long term. That’s it, long term. Otherwise it can be hugely disruptive for the group at this critical phase of existence.” – Twitter, October 27, 2019

Nada Barkos, former CIA analyst and targeting officer: “Leadership decapitation may have a meaningful impact while ISIS is in a vulnerable state of rebuilding. In the short-term, fear of becoming a target keeps leaders separated from their organization and potentially renders them less effective.” – Twitter, October 29, 2019

Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security: “From homeland @DHSgov and @FBI perspective, what happens now? 1)there will be a 50 state call to state fusion centers and Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) on any intell and just an overall brief; 2) JTTFs likely to ramp up any surveillance etc of potential followers…anticipate law enforcement bulletin to local/state police just as FYI (all this is protocol after an event like this that may trigger activity); 4)same for Western Europe and Interpol; 5)more aggressive social media monitoring. All part of planning.” – Twitter, October 27, 2019

But the Islamic State will remain a long-term threat:

Sam Heller, International Crisis Group: “Baghdadi's death seems unlikely to have an immediate impact on the group's operations. U.S. officials told @CrisisGroup they believed the Islamic State's top leadership was issuing broad guidance to the global organization, not day-to-day direction… IS's appeal seems not to be personalistic – Baghdadi himself only appeared on video twice. And some of the group's more identifiable figures have loomed nearly as large in death. Audio from former spox Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, for example, still features in its media.” – Twitter, October 27, 2019

Baghdadi’s death created a leadership void:

Cole Bunzel, Hoover Institute: “At least one member of dissident IS faction expects next caliph to be a certain ‘Abdallah Qirdash (aka Hajji ‘Abdallah), a companion of Baghdadi’s since Camp Bucca days.” – Twitter, 10/27/19 

J.M. Berger, VOX-Pol and Swansea University: “Will Baghdadi's successor be so-called caliph or just emir? The "conditions (that) were met" to elevate ABB are much different now. "Caliph" also comes with other requirements; those can be faked or obfuscated, but emir is overall an easier job to fill. Also, naming an emir instead of a caliph would remove one of the major points of contention between IS and AQ.” – Twitter, October 27, 2019

Amarnath Amarasingam, Queen’s University: “I think the succession plan will follow a similar pattern: -the ISIS shura council will select some kind of successor. We have some names of potentials but we’ll see -the choice of leader will likely be one suitable to carry ISIS forward during its current state… In other words, it’s unlikely to be a caliph with religious credentials. More likely to be a skilled military commander who will function as emir.” – Twitter, October 27, 2019


The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda could reconcile post-Baghdadi:

Bruce Hoffman, The Council on Foreign Relations: “Will Baghdadi's death facilitate the reunification of al-Qaeda with ISIS? Qaeda has been consolidating its position in Syria via its local stalking horse, Hurras al-Din. With no clear ISIS heir apparent, a voluntary merger with Qaeda or absorption of remaining ISIS is plausible.” – Twitter, October 27, 2019

Thomas Joscelyn, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies: “Even though ISIS's territorial caliphate is no more, it fights on as a global terrorist & insurgency organization. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the competition between ISIS & AQ assuming Baghdadi is dead. The rivalry goes beyond Baghdadi as many in ISIS hate AQ…But I would expect a renewed AQ effort to subsume some part of ISIS back into its fold. There are too many variables and unknowns for me to make a prediction, but it is worth keeping a close eye on. AQ has regional branches in place, slowly trying to build their own caliphate.” – Twitter, October 27, 2019

Jennifer Cafarella, Institute for the Study of War: “As some have rightly noted, “descending from the prophet” here is shorthand. More precisely, they’re claiming descent from the prophet’s tribe per the norm.” – Twitter, October 31, 2019




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