Why Baghdadi’s Death Is Not The End Of ISIS’ Caliphate Dream

As the world steps into the analytical and processing mode on what the death of infamous jihadi and terrorist-in-chief of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, means for the future of all from terrorist group ISIS itself to Syria to world anti terrorism fight as a whole; there are inclinations and thoughts that it is the final nail in ISIS’ coffin.

While there are reasons for celebration, not just for the victims of Baghdadi but for the entire humanity, that a barbarian, rapist and a mass murderer has – at last –  been brought to justice; it is also equally pollyannaish to believe in the temptations that this will be the death of ISIS.

Baghdadi, a self proclaimed ‘Caliph of all Muslims’ around the world, rose from a small town Al Jallam of Central Iraq; which was significant behind his push for becoming caliphate. Born into al-Badri tribe – which traces its lineage to Quraysh, the tribe of the prophet Mohammad – he fulfilled the essential prerequisite, of having a hereditary connection to Quraysh, for becoming a caliphate.

A deeply and eerily religious man Baghdadi – who was a master’s and a doctorate degree holder in Islamic studies from Saddam University – dreamt of serving as a symbolic figure leading an actual Islamic state with territorial entity ruled as per the sharia laws. He intended in establishing an empire which could terrorise non-believers and could make it corresponding duty of all Muslims to pay allegiance to it. 

To some extent he indeed succeeded as at its peak ISIS was ruling the territory roughly of the size of Britain. He succeeded in instilling intense fear among people through his and his men’s horrendous and insanely extremist actions coupled with filming like burning people alive, crushing innocents under tanks, accused spies locked into the underwater cage and filmed until death, stringing people from feet in slaughterhouses and butchering them like animals and brutally raping girls/women.

Victims of their most monstrous actions were predominantly from, already scarce in numbers, non-Muslim community of Yazidis and Christians. Not fed up with killing them, he also inflicted horror on other non-Arab ethnicities like the Kurds and non-Sunni sects like the shiites. Not fed with them too, he barbarically butchered anyone including Sunnis having slightest of acrimony towards the theocracy of Islamic state. He was undoubtedly the single most important figure in group’s evolution to world’s biggest terrorist group. 

Along with strictly practising medieval practices, he brought a new fervour in radicals around the world through exploitation of internet. ISIS’ usage of internet as a tool to further its extremist ideology succeed in attracting thousands of jihadist from over 100 countries, who in turn lead several terrorist attacks around the world in their personal capacity, most of the time with no affliction to ISIS other than ideological and religious one.

A shooting at an office party in San Bernardino, Calif; an attack on a Christmas market in Germany; a truck attack in Nice, France; and suicide bombings at churches on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people; were those attacks coordinated and carried out by ISIS’ affiliates. 

Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to bring any changes in ISIS’ affiliates who attack in their respective regions targeting their respective local people. That process of affiliates becoming more dangerous was already underway ever since the ISIS started losing its ground in Syria and Iraq. And Baghdadi’s death will only speeded that process which can lead to affiliates joining or forming new terror groups, inspired by ISIS’ ideology, in their domestic region. ISIS terrorists themselves are unlikely to change their course after their leaders death as they have made it clear that they do not fight for any individual but for the larger cause of establishing Islamic state. 

When a terror outfit reaches to such an extent of controlling major chunk of land and lives up to its dream of caliphate for a little while, it’s hard to believe that it will be defeated in one shot or through elimination of its most significant man. “Just as Osama bin-Laden’s death did not lead to elimination of al-Qaeda, I could expect that Baghdadi’s death will not be the final death knell of ISIS – despite its significance” Dana Stroul, a former Pentagon official and current senior fellow Washington Institute for Near East policy, was quoted as saying in Foreign Policy.

As in case with ISIS itself as rightly pointed out by Kabir Taneja is his ORF piece that “ISIS has survived these sort of leader decapitations before” when, as researcher Aaron Y Zelin of the Washington Institute observed, in 2010, Islamic State in Iraq’s (ISI was the prequel to ISIS) two top leaders, Abu Umar and Abu Hamza, were killed in a US drone strike near Tikrit. Despite their deaths, ISIS survived. 

Baghdadi parlayed religious fundamentalism, extreme hatred for non-believers and advocacy of strict sharia rule. These same message lead to the creation of ISIS, which dangerously promoted this message even further. The ideological bonhomie and base of the group was a religious heterodox mixture of radical Islamism and Puritan Salafism. And until this ideology is completely exterminated, its difficult to defeat ISIS or any other terrorist group for that matter. 

Turkey backed invasion has already started worsening situation as many ISIS captives reportedly fled after Kurds were driven on back foot by Turkish forces. Weakening of Kurds significantly weakens the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) which is the chief anti-ISIS force in Syria. American troop withdrawal has already started showing signs of worsening conditions in Syria, which can, at worst, lead to ISIS reviving chunk of its power.

It is unambiguous that ISIS will announce the new leader, who will ride the same horse of religious extremism as one rode by Baghdadi. Until that ideological horse is decimated, new jihadi leaders will always be ready to ride it. The factor that lead to creation of ISIS – the theology of establishing Islamic state – has been injected by ISIS into many across the world. And until the idea of caliphate is quashed completely, it’s unlikely that ISIS’ dream of caliphate will die.

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About the Author

Yogendra Thakur
A student and two time state topper in Astrophysics and Art of Lecturing. Primary focus areas are Indology and Economics.