ISIS after Baghdadi? Why experts urge sustained vigilance.

Why We Wrote This

For organizations to endure, leadership and a compelling narrative can both be instrumental. The Islamic State has now lost its leader and the territory behind its narrative. But it still has a story to tell.

Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters
Iraqi youths in Najaf, Iraq, watch the news of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death, Oct. 27, 2019.

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ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. But the conditions that created fertile ground for the Islamic State group’s appeal remain in place. The group still has a draw as an anti-establishment Islamism that stands up to oppressors; Syria continues to be mired in a civil war; and recent violence in Iraq indicates that governance there is deeply problematic.

A Pentagon report in August warned that ISIS had solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurgent in Syria. It estimated that ISIS likely retains somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 members across the neighboring nations.

Lina Khatib, a senior analyst at Chatham House, warns that people in those countries in areas formerly controlled by ISIS are frustrated with their living conditions and with authorities’ neglect, making them vulnerable to ISIS recruitment.

“Without its so-called ‘caliphate,’ the ideological appeal of ISIS is greatly reduced,” she says. “But they are trying to compensate for that by rallying support through using narratives of revenge.” The death of Mr. Baghdadi, who was not crucial to the organization’s survival, “will not detract from its current attempts at a revival as it takes advantage of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria.”

So what happens to ISIS now?

The Islamic State group’s fortunes have whipsawed, from the dramatic collapse last spring of its self-styled caliphate, to the sudden window of opportunity created this month by the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria and the retreat of allied Kurdish forces, and now to the spectacular and unexpected death this weekend of its shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a U.S. raid in northwestern Syria.

But the basic conditions that created fertile ground for ISIS’s ideological appeal remain in place, experts note. The group still has a draw as an anti-establishment Islamism that stands up to oppressors; Syria continues to be mired in a civil war complicated by foreign interference; and recent violence in Iraq indicates that governance there is still deeply problematic.

Eradicating ISIS, experts warn, requires sustained effort and stability, two things that remain in short supply in Syria and Iraq.

While President Donald Trump has sought to cast the U.S. elimination of Mr. Baghdadi as more consequential than the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, author of “A Theory of ISIS” and “Understanding Al Qaeda” dismisses Mr. Baghdadi’s death as a strategic and security nonevent. Mr. Baghdadi, he notes, had become less consequential to the evolution and operation of ISIS after the 2017 loss of its so-called caliphate’s capital cities – Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

Mr. Baghdadi was a low-profile leader. He made his second and final video address in April after the fall of the Syria hamlet of Al-Baghouz, downplaying the importance of territory and highlighting instead the organization’s growing international reach. The last audio message attributed to him dates to mid-September, when he urged followers to redouble their efforts in “all aspects,” including preaching, media, military, and security activities.

“Even at the heyday of ISIS’s period of active operations, he was a shadowy figure never appearing so forcefully to lead operations as Osama Bin Laden had, or the second and third tier of Al Qaeda’s leadership a decade or so ago with Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarkawi,” notes Mr. Mohamedou, who teaches international history at the Graduate Institute of Geneva.

“The ongoing potential re-emergence of the group will be determined far more by a new generation of actors than the rearguard that he was representing for a while now,” adds Mr. Mohamedou. “The conditions that led to the emergence of ISIS in the early 2010s are all there almost 10 years later.”

Narratives of revenge

In addition to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the conditions encompass worsened mistrust between communities, unceasing foreign military intervention, weakened and underperforming states, corrupt and criminal leaders, and empowered and militarized armed groups, he says.

“To this must be added the desire for some former or new members of the Islamic State to reform it under a logic of ‘restarting the fight’ and reverting to the ‘golden age’ of the Mosul and Raqqa occupations circa 2014-2017,” he says.

Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, warns that many people in areas formerly controlled by ISIS in both Syria and Iraq are frustrated with their dire living conditions and with authorities who have largely neglected their needs. These grievances, she says, make some of them vulnerable to ISIS recruitment.

“Without its so-called ‘caliphate,’ the ideological appeal of ISIS is greatly reduced,” adds Ms. Khatib. “But they are trying to compensate for that by rallying support through using narratives of revenge.”

In the short term, she predicts, ISIS cells will conduct opportunistic attacks against civilians and military opponents to prove that ISIS is still relevant and powerful. The death of Mr. Baghdadi, who was not crucial to the organization’s survival, “will not detract from its current attempts at a revival as it takes advantage of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria.”

“The group’s local insurgent units understand how to work, and they can continue absent new guidance,” concurs Sam Heller of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which published a report this month on the threat ISIS continues to pose to Iraqis and Syrians, and could pose globally if it manages to regroup. The report highlights the destabilizing impact of Turkey’s invasion in northeastern Syria and the possible spillover of Iran-U.S. tensions in Iraq.

Ongoing insurgencies

A Pentagon report issued in August warned that ISIS had solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq, where it has established a stable “command and control node,” and was resurgent in Syria. It estimated that ISIS likely retains somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 members across the two neighboring nations, among them up to 3,000 foreign fighters.

The report covered ISIS activity between April and June 2019.

“ISIS militants in both countries employed similar tactics of targeted assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings in public places, and burning fields of crops, but did not carry out large-scale conventional attacks or attempt to take and hold territory for more than brief periods,” it noted.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units) is written over a wall painting of the ISIS flag in a home in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 16, 2019.

The same report warned that despite moving underground in Syria and Iraq, ISIS “maintains an extensive worldwide social media effort to recruit fighters.” And it predicted that the removal or reduction of U.S. forces from Syria would cause U.S.-backed Syrian forces to find alternative partnerships and collapse the tentative democratic regional government structures that the United States had supported.

Indeed, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria and the chaotic U.S. drawdown has forced the Kurds to pivot toward the Syrian regime and Russia. It has also forced them to shift resources and de-prioritize the control of detention centers and camps housing ISIS operatives, family members, and sympathizers. One of the most problematic detention centers for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is Al-Hol – home to more than 68,000 people, many of them ISIS family members that Western and other nations are unwilling to repatriate.

ISIS is already exploring the security gaps created by Turkey’s invasion to facilitate prison breaks. Two out of four escape attempts from Syrian prisons and camps have been successful this month. Five fugitives fled a detention center in Qamishli Oct. 11. Two days later, 850 fled the Ain Issa camp. Further escapes and prison breaks remain a distinct possibility – Mr. Baghdadi announced a jail break campaign in his final address.

“The question is not really whether we will see more escape, but rather what kind of a menace do they pose,” says Raffaello Pantucci, international security studies director at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. “So far we have not seen that many plots around the world involving committed long-term fighters.”

Beyond the Kurdish zone

One challenge moving forward is that ISIS insurgent activity is concentrated in areas where the Kurds did not have a historic presence – removing the existential threat imperative that led to a sustained collaboration with the U.S. in the pursuit of other ISIS leaders and cells.

A region that has witnessed a “steady drumbeat” of insurgent activity, for example, is Deir Ezzor, where ISIS has capitalized on the frustration with SDF rule in Arab majority areas, according to the International Crisis Group. “The problem there is that ISIS went into the local population and it is difficult to separate them,” says Heiko Wimmen, who oversees Crisis Group’s Iraq/Syria/Lebanon project.

It remains to be seen whether the Syrian regime would be more successful at co-opting local tribes and keeping the problem to manageable proportions.

None of the analysts see the Russia-backed Syrian regime devoting much effort to fighting ISIS.

“Russia and the Syrian regime have done more to contribute to terrorism than to fight terrorism,” notes Ms. Khatib.

“The regime lacks the capacity to carry out any meaningful counterterrorism,” says Mr. Wimmen, noting bad blood accumulated after more than eight years of conflict, lack of resources, and lack of state capacity.

The Kurds celebrated with as much gusto as the U.S. the demise of Mr. Baghdadi, who blew himself up in a tunnel along with three of his children. Both duly credited their partnership for that historic moment. But with that alliance on the rocks, the incentives for Kurds to keep ISIS detainees and carry out counterterrorism efforts appear limited.

“The demonstrated unreliability of the United States certainly is no incentive for them to trust the latter to be a solid partner on such a crucial issue,” says Mr. Mohamedou.

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