The significance of Baghdadi’s end | Analysis - Hindustan Times

The significance of Baghdadi’s end | Analysis

ByKabir Taneja
Oct 28, 2019 07:32 PM IST

Militarily down, the IS remains ideologically alive. Counter-terrorism must adapt to its techniques

This past weekend, the United States (US) announced that the elusive leader of Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed after a nighttime raid by US Army Delta Force commandos in northwestern Syria’s Idlib region. This brought a 10-year-long hunt for the man who, at one point, controlled territory bigger than the United Kingdom in Iraq and Syria, and led the most brutal and violent Islamist terror group on the planet.

Baghdadi once controlled territory bigger than the UK in Iraq and Syria. His death comes at a time of churn in the IS(AP)
Baghdadi once controlled territory bigger than the UK in Iraq and Syria. His death comes at a time of churn in the IS(AP)

Baghdadi, whose real name was Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al Badri, was an Iraqi-born jihadist who, after years of fighting in the Iraqi and Syrian theatres, announced the setting up of the so-called Islamic State caliphate after taking over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in the summer of 2014. “I was appointed to rule you but I am not the best amongst you. If you see me acting truly, follow me, if not then advise and guide me. If I disobey God, then do not obey me”, he declared from Mosul’s Al Nuri mosque then, the only video of him until one was released earlier this year.

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Since then, the IS endorsed grotesque violence, making theatric productions of beheadings, pushing people off buildings to their deaths, public executions, rape and slavery. It used the Internet to make them viewable in every home in the world, irrespective of geography or language. Baghdadi’s death is bound to shake up the hierarchy of the IS. The group plunged into a deeper crisis a few hours after the Idlib raid when his aide and right hand man, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was also killed around the area of Jarablus on Syria’s border with Turkey. Both Baghdadi and Muhajir died in territory which is not conducive to the IS, and is littered with other smaller groups who have fought the IS over the past few years. This in itself raises questions on what was transpiring within IS ranks. Was Baghdadi looking at some sort of compromise with other jihadist groups? Was he planning to slip into Turkey? There are more questions than answers available at the moment.

Interestingly, the IS’ very effective, vast, organised and synchronised world of online propaganda has yet to react strongly to Baghdadi’s death. The usual channels of online communications for the IS, such as Amaq News, have not released statements or reacted to the reports, including nothing on President Donald Trump’s long address to the nation on the success of the Idlib raid. Most pro-IS accounts and channels online have maintained their daily routine. They have been reporting on relatively small ground offensives and attacks, as the group morphs into an insurgency in order to better its chances of long-term survival, and by association, a revival.

There are, however, latent rumours of possible replacements for Baghdadi at the top of the IS. A few reports, two months ago, highlighted that Baghdadi’s aide, Amir Mohammed Saeed Abdulrahman Mohammed al-Mawla, also known as “Abdullah Qardash” was nominated to lead the group’s activities in Iraq as Baghdadi suffered from diabetes. Qardash is known to be from Tal Afar in northern Iraq, a devout radical, and one who has spent considerable time with Baghdadi. Analysts in touch with former IS members and breakaway groups say that some seem to believe Qardash could be the one to take over from Baghdadi. During this period of his accession to handling IS duties in Iraq, the US State Department announced a $5 million reward against him. Like Baghdadi, who was a PhD, Qardash is also known to be highly educated, reportedly being a graduate in Islamic studies from Mosul University.

Whatever the outcomes for the IS may be, both organisationally and operationally, the group has managed to embed its brand of terror in the global conscience. From the propaganda videos of executions to the pro-IS attacks in the streets of Paris, the group’s ideological success in both enlisting locals for its cause and inspiring many from abroad to come and fight for the caliphate has been institutional. It has also changed the classical rules of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Weaponising the Internet, and using the same platforms we do for communications on a daily basis to radicalise and recruit, poses a new threat which is proving to be a challenge for security agencies.

Countries such as India, which has seen negligible numbers of pro-IS cases, should look to up its game when it comes to the issue of online radicalisation. The fragmentation of such radicalisation, where the terror group itself is minimally involved beyond a point, should force for a near complete overhaul in Indian counter-terror thinking. What our counter-terror ecosystem has learnt, mostly from Kashmir, over the past few decades is now grossly inadequate, including in theatres such as Kashmir.

Predicting the future trajectory of the IS at this point is difficult. The narratives of its ‘defeat’ begs the question as to what ‘defeat’ means. Is the IS militarily and geographically down and out? Yes. Is it ideologically defeated? No.

Kabir Taneja is Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation. He is the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia
The views expressed are personal

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