Can You Kill the Islamic State?

A video still released by the Islamic State in 2014, believed to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A video still released by the Islamic State in 2014, believed to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the self-described Islamic State, might have been killed. Again.

In announcing last week the airstrike that may have felled the Islamic State’s leader, Russia wisely hedged its bets. If Mr. Baghdadi’s death is confirmed, though, this would be a positive development. The resulting leadership vacuum, and the scramble to fill it, would no doubt hasten the coming disintegration of the Islamic State. In truth, however, the handwriting was on the wall long before last week’s announcement.

From its inception, the Islamic State’s real power resided not in religious extremists like Mr. Baghdadi but in a corps of former Saddam Hussein loyalists behind the scenes who had linked up with convicted jihadists when they were together in American-run prisons in the mid-2000s. These ex-Baathists, with a talent for eye-catching violence and unsurpassed knowledge of the inner workings of Iraqi society, kept the Islamic State alive through lean years before leading it to sweeping victories following the American departure from Iraq.

Now almost all of the ex-Baathist leaders are dead, as are most of their immediate lieutenants. This represents a key difference between the Islamic State today and Al Qaeda in 2011: When Osama bin Laden died, many of his deputies were around to keep the organization running.

This Islamic State, by contrast, has been robbed of any strength in depth it may once have possessed. With Mosul mostly back in Iraqi hands and United States-backed forces encroaching on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, it is only a matter of time before the group will cease to be.

The real question is what happens next. One fact can be taken for granted: Its thousands of fighters will not melt away. Instead, like generations of jihadists before them, they will seek alternative outlets for violence. As previously demonstrated by Al Qaeda, territorial loses don’t necessarily limit a group’s ability to inspire supporters far from the battlefield.

The Islamic State’s most obvious successors might seem to be its network of affiliates. The biggest of these, based in Eastern Libya, has several thousand members and may have helped train the Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi. There is precedent for a jihadi group morphing from a proto-state into a global network: Al Qaeda managed just that after the fall of the Afghan Taliban. Again, however, Al Qaeda had the benefit of a surviving cadre of senior leaders capable of providing continuity and centralized direction; the Islamic State does not. At this point, it seems unlikely that its web of franchises, always loose to begin with, will hold together without the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

Unfortunately, that is far from the end of the matter. The impending destruction of the caliphate raises another dangerous possibility: reconciliation between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. The dispute between the two groups has always been both ideological and personal. Ideologically, the Islamic State claims to represent the reborn caliphate, and therefore demands the allegiance of all Muslims — fealty that Al Qaeda refuses to offer. Once there is no caliphate, this ideological dispute will fall away.

On a personal level, the Islamic State loathes Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, whom it views as a usurper. They never forgave Mr. Zawahri for supporting the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, when it broke from their group.

A popular trope among Islamic State members is their claim to represent “bin Laden’s Al Qaeda,” as opposed to “Zawahri’s Al Qaeda.” But the day may not be far off when Al Qaeda’s emir will once again bear the name of its founder. In an audio message in 2015, Mr. Zawahri introduced a man he called “a lion from the den” of Al Qaeda. The next voice on the tape was that of Mr. bin Laden’s son Hamza, now in his late 20s.

On audio messages Hamza sounds remarkably like his father, with the same hushed intensity and much of the same phraseology. Recently, Al Qaeda has begun according him the title of “sheikh,” a mark of his growing power. Perhaps most significantly of all, while Mr. Zawahri continually rails against the Islamic State’s leadership, Hamza is careful not to say anything that might antagonize Mr. Baghdadi’s followers.

We should not be surprised if Hamza replaces Mr. Zawahri as emir. With the caliphate consigned to history and a bin Laden once again at the top of Al Qaeda, the door would be open for former Islamic State fighters to rejoin the fold, bringing with them months or years of front-line experience.

With or without Mr. Baghdadi, the Islamic State in its current form is doomed. Bin Laden’s ideology, however, is destined to survive well into the future.

Ali H. Soufan is the author, most recently, of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State.

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