Home Commentary and Analysis Is ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Dead? And Does It Matter?
Is ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Dead? And Does It Matter?

Is ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Dead? And Does It Matter?

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By Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis

Early this week, a Turkish newspaper reported that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is dead. The report, which allegedly came from an ISIS-controlled website, is disputed.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not been heard from since December, when he issued an audio message. Since that time, rumors about his death have circulated in Iraqi, Kurdish, Turkish, Lebanese and other regional media on an almost weekly basis. In reality, the claims of al-Baghdadi’s death cannot be corroborated until we have a clear statement issued by an established entity, namely the Russian government, the United States government or a verifiable Islamic State source.

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But what if these claims are true? Would they affect ISIS? Research by experts on what intelligence and security professionals call ‘decapitation’ — namely attempts to neutralize a terrorist or criminal group by killing its leader or leaders — is rarely effective, especially when they target religiously-motivated militant groups. That is not to say that a possible death of al-Baghdadi will not affect the psychology of ISIS troops at a critical time, as they find themselves under persistent military attacks in Iraq, Syria and Libya. But ‘decapitations’ are rarely game changers.

If al-Baghdadi is dead, much will depend on how ISIS handles the crisis and the level of unity within the organization. The survivability of groups like ISIS depends on their capacity to evolve according to changing conditions on the ground. For the past several years, ISIS has shown that it is capable of adapting its style of fighting to tactical requirements, for instance by using conventional military means in unconventional ways. It can be expected that the group will continue to adapt in response to changing circumstances.

The West May Suffer

If ISIS continues to lose territory, it can be stated with confidence that it will become more violent, especially in the West. But that may happen regardless of al-Baghdadi’s fate. It is worth keeping in mind that, just two years ago, the militant group specifically instructed its tens of thousands of followers in the West to descend to the Middle East in order to help create a caliphate. In other words, it instructed them to fight the jihad mainly in the Middle East and not in the West. But if its territorial power in the Middle East continues to diminish, ISIS will be tempted to change its tactics and is likely to command its followers to disperse around the world in order to systematically wreak havoc on a global scale. Such a change of tactics could have monumental implications for Western security.

[Related: Death of ISIS Leaders Continue to Rise: What is the Effect?]

Regardless of al-Baghdadi’s fate, it is difficult to foresee radical changes on the ground. The bloody struggle for territorial dominance between rival groups in Syria and Iraq will continue unabated. The only true game changer involves strengthening the protection of Sunni Muslims from the ire of Iraqi, Iranian and Lebanese Shiites, who are now thirsting for revenge as the Islamic State is retreating. In the past few years, ISIS has acted as the de facto protector of Sunnis in their regional rivalry against the Shiites. As ISIS is retreating, these Sunni populations find themselves under the jurisdiction of Shiites, who are intent on exacting revenge.

There are already strong indications, reported by the BBC and other reputable news outlets, that Shiite troops fighting for the Iraqi government have systematically tortured civilians in Fallujah, which was recently reconquered from ISIS. If these practices continue on a large scale, another cycle of religious and ethnic violence will engulf the Middle East in flames.

About the Author

Joseph FitsanakisDr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Assistant Professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. He specializes in intelligence and national security with an emphasis on international espionage. Dr. Fitsankis has taught and written extensively on intelligence policy and practice, intelligence history, communications interception, cyber espionage and transnational criminal networks. His writings have been translated into several languages and referenced in media outlets including The Washington Post, BBC, ABC, NPR, Newsweek, The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Wired.

Before joining Coastal Carolina University, Dr. Fitsanakis built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. At Coastal, he teaches courses on national security, intelligence communications, intelligence analysis, intelligence operations and espionage during the Cold War, among other subjects. Dr. Fitsanakis is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org, an ACI-indexed scholarly blog that is cataloged through the United States Library of Congress.

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