The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the course of an American operation can only harm the Islamic State. Not only did Baghdadi claim religious authority, which failed to protect him from the Americans; he was also, far more than al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, a field commander, issuing orders to subordinates on the ground on which they fought, and directing his organisation in war.
The death of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) commander was rapidly followed by the killing of its spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, the man who would likely have officially announced Baghdadi’s death to ISIS’ supporters worldwide, had he lived that long.
ISIS was, in a few strokes, deprived of two of its most senior figures and, after a brief interregnum, they were replaced by men whose noms de guerre had not appeared elsewhere. ISIS’ new spokesman is Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, and after confirming the death of Baghdadi and his predecessor, he announced the caliph’s successor. That man is called Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Very little is known about him.
But we know much about the terror organisation he now leads. ISIS has faced defeat and collapse but remains potent. Though thousands of its fighters have been killed and captured, and some foreigners have left its ranks and returned home, it remains a significant presence in ungoverned spaces in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
Some ISIS prisoners apparently escaped captivity during the recent Turkish military incursion, and ISIS has claimed bombings and terrorist disruptions. These ought not to be exaggerated, but this proves both willingness and ability to organise and to do harm.
But amid talk of ISIS’ defeat or resurgence in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist organisation’s global reach is less frequently discussed. After the creation of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014, several international jihadist organisations publicly claimed loyalty to Baghdadi and affiliation with his claimed state. These included Boko Haram in Africa, and smaller, local jihadist forces in Asia and North Africa.
ISIS’ global insurgent brand, as some call it, has lost two significant leadership figures in succession, and may lose much ground as a result. But it remains out there in the world, and largely undefeated.
The Philippines is an object lesson. Local jihadist groups, and significant figures such as Isnilon Hapilon, by and large declared their loyalty to Baghdadi in 2014.
After ISIS began to encourage its fighters not to migrate to Iraq and Syria, but rather to join its foreign wilayats (provinces), foreign fighters travelled in significant numbers to the Philippines. The Islamic State of East Asia (ISEA) was met with ISIS’ approval and support.
The counter-terror campaign fought by the Filipino government has resembled the fight against ISIS central in the Levant. A local force, with significant indirect support from the United States, has fought a series of urban battles to defeat jihadist enemies. The battle of Marawi shattered the city like battles for Mosul and Raqqa, but resulted in the defeat of the jihadists.
But ISIS and its ideological affiliates embrace other tactics aside from urban warfare. Jihadists use suicide bombings, both on their person and in vehicle-borne explosive devices, for warfare and propaganda.
These groups are largely autonomous. But their violent successes bolster the image of ISIS and its reconstructed leadership.
Pawel Wojcik, a terrorism researcher and analyst, said of ISIS in the Philippines: ‘They are capable of existing without ISIS sending them money, mainly because of resurgence of lucrative kidnapping for ransom. Also, they seem to have acquired some business that supplies them with cash, after spending Marawi loot.
‘Philippine authorities have been struggling in recent years, but are unable to stop the comeback of ISEA. Not only they are making multiple mistakes dealing with the aftermath of Marawi, a peace deal with major Islamist group is contested, but also, [Filipino armed forces have] problems battling major ISEA forces in Sulu and Maguindanao’, Wojcik said.
The Philippines are not an isolated story of franchised success for ISIS. Its affiliates in Africa continue independent of the success or setbacks of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria; in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan, as it is called, operates amid a situation which contains a shaky national government in the process of losing American support. In the Sinai, Egypt is fighting a campaign against an insurgency which existed before ISIS’ caliphate, but was bolstered by the latter’s declaration.
ISIS is not invincible. The deaths of its leaders show that clearly. It can still be badly led, and defeated by the carefully coordinated efforts of its enemies. But amid failures among its foes, and disunity in the global coalition charged with preventing ISIS’ return, its insurgency in Iraq and Syria and foreign provinces around the world will continue to threaten the peace.
‘This and the flow of foreigners and adapting to worldwide IS strategy, for me, is the problem that will only grow in the near future,’ Wojcik said. ‘And the aftermath will be grim.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.