‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!” The instructions to the Delta team in pursuit of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were probably less direct than that of the Mexican crime lord in the Sam Peckinpah splatter movie but there’s little doubt that it was effectively an American hit job. In the end, the trapped leader of the Islamic State death cult blew himself up, sparing the need for an awkward debate about the ethics of targeted assassinations.
The problem, though, is that most modern terror organisations cannot be decapitated. When Osama bin Laden was eventually run to ground in Pakistan in 2011, a cache of porn and works by Noam Chomsky on the bookshelves of his hideout, it became clear he had become largely irrelevant to the daily proceedings of al-Qaeda.
Sophisticated terror groups work on the basis of semi-autonomous, delegated management. After the death of its caliph the crucial decisions for Isis are less about succession than about job churn. Will its executives, no longer bound by a personal bond of loyalty to Baghdadi, join the rival firm, al-Qaeda? Which way will its many international Isis affiliates jump? And as hardcore fighters drift out of sparsely guarded prison camps in Syria, will they be looking for a new employer?
A merger or at least an active alliance between parts of Isis and al-Qaeda could be on the cards. Here, then, is the paradox: the elimination of a terrorist figurehead, though a cause for celebration, may open the way for the formation of a new terrorist juggernaut dedicated to exploiting Sunni grievances. One, perhaps, that combines al-Qaeda’s skill in long-term planning with the recruitment skills and media savviness of Isis. Look out China and your Uighur “re-education” camps. Look out Arab autocrats. Look out Europe.
Arab intelligence services have been predicting movement towards a new Terror Inc for some months. The Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri put out some feelers when Isis was dislodged from Mosul, the place where Baghdadi had declared the setting up of a caliphate in 2014. Zawahiri had always regarded this as premature and doubted it would be possible to raise an army large enough to defend the terrain. There were tactical differences too: al-Qaeda’s philosophy was to treat local tribes as hosts to be wooed and bribed; Isis antagonised the locals by behaving like an occupying force. Isis meanwhile was deeply sceptical about the al-Qaeda leadership. It had started out as a wing of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and its enemies were not only the Americans but also the Shia-led pro-Iranian governors of Iraq. Zawahiri was too open towards Tehran for the taste of the Isis leadership.
Baghdadi’s death removes some of the obstacles to an AQ-Isis union. So too does the recently announced death of Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son, who had been considered a possible successor to Zawahiri. Hamza spent years sheltering in Iran with his mother before moving to Pakistan; this made him an object of suspicion to Isis. The most likely future scenario: the Isis shura council will select a new leader while the group as a whole quietly accepts that the physical caliphate no longer exists. The new caliph will be a shrunken figure. Like all terror groups under stress Isis will splinter, much as the IRA fractured. Some parts will be drawn into even deeper cahoots with organised crime; counterintelligence specialists already talk about “narco-Salafism”.
But Isis foot soldiers, who were never as caught up in the ideological feuds with al-Qaeda as their leaders, may be ready to join their supposed rivals. After all, the military backbone of Isis in Iraq was made up of former Baathist officers who had served under Saddam Hussein. They’re consummate survivors, cynical professionals. Some bonded with clerics while they were being held together by the US in Camp Bucca in Iraq 15 years ago. The prison became a kind of finishing school for the future Isis leadership. Now, in the detention camps of northern Syria, Isis inmates may well be having similar chats. They could be asking themselves: what did the daily administration of the caliphate have to do with the romance and discipline of the jihad? That question will lead them into the arms of a reinvigorated al-Qaeda.
The foreign fighters meanwhile are truly stranded. Unwanted by their home countries and yet of only limited value to a shrunken Isis or a growing al-Qaeda, they will continue to inhabit a limbo. Even in the heyday of Isis’s rapid advances, they weren’t much good as soldiers. Instead they found themselves roles as jailers, as part of the social media operation, as bit players or enforcers in the Isis citadels or as executioners. Even if they manage to slip out of their camps they are unlikely to be enlisted by a new terror grouping. In the vernacular: they’re stuffed.
This is more than a convention of lost souls. The outcome of the realignment in Middle Eastern terror groups will have a global impact. In an audio appeal to the “soldiers of the Islamic State” in July 2014, Baghdadi presented Muslim victimhood as a universal rallying cry, ignoring the fact that the largest number of Isis victims were actually Muslims. “Muslims’ rights are being forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian peninsula,” he said, “in the Caucasus, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the East and the West.”
That’s quite a roll call. For five years Isis leaders have been stoking up anger and it is unlikely to dissipate now that Baghdadi has been blown to smithereens. They will look for a new nest of snakes.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.