May 4, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Without al-Baghdadi

• Notwithstanding the rumors surrounding the health of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the structure of the group warrants study as it continues on amidst increasing pressure

• The Islamic State is not a cult of personality and therefore won’t collapse upon the death of senior leadership, al-Baghdadi included; it persists because its ideology persists

• As with Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaeda, the Islamic State was highly dependent on charismatic personality at its inception but not in its current state, and its ideology will long outlive its founding personalities

• The eventual death of al-Baghdadi is an important goal, but as seen with the death of Usama bin Ladin, it will not be a lethal blow to the group nor to its ideology.


Sadly, the near-term future of the Islamic State extends beyond the supposedly dim health prospects of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group has largely been able to absorb the decapitation-strike loss the anti-Islamic State coalition has maneuvered to achieve. In the near-term, the Islamic State can survive the loss of senior leadership up to al-Baghdadi.

Rumors of an incapacitated al-Bagdadi are just that, and they help serve coalition aims to marginalize the leader of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization. The international coalition has little interest in confirming reports of al-Bagdadi’s poor health; indeed it revels in the mystery. It is important to marginalize al-Baghdadi at every step, and unfortunately, for counterterrorism (CT) purposes, marginalizing him won’t be enough.

When Usama bin Ladin was killed in May 2011, there was hope that his death would weaken his organization. But the opposite is true; the ideology of bin Ladinism has outlived and even surpassed bin Ladin. He was vital in the creation of al-Qaeda but not so much in sustaining it. The same is true of the Islamic State and its leader al-Baghdadi.

Like bin Ladin, al-Baghdadi is the most wanted person on earth, and is largely not able to engage publicly; personally delivering the message of the Islamic State compromises his security. Being constantly in hiding, however—injured or not—only serves to diminish his effectiveness and potency as the leader of the group. The question, therefore, becomes whether or not the group will be able to survive his eventual death. The group’s own history and the history of terrorist groups in general suggest that the Islamic State will outlive al-Baghdadi. The group has expanded past the vision of its founders and has become a catch-all for perceived Sunni disgruntlement and disenfranchisement. The group is a self-perpetuating machine now, and its leadership is less significant than its purpose.

In the coming months, it will be less important how the coalition deals with the death of al-Baghdadi than how it deals with the regional vacuums that allowed the group to thrive. The Islamic State didn’t arise from nothing and it won’t fall away to nothing as its enemies grow more organized. The leadership of the group was vital to the Islamic State's founding but that moment has passed, and the region is now dealing with the group's continued expansion and stubborn hold on territory.

It is as unimportant if al-Baghdadi is unable to remain in charge of day-to-day operations as it was when bin Ladin was sidelined for years. There are far more supporters of al-Qaeda now than in 2001, and far more supporters of the Islamic State now than a year ago. Leadership is crucial in the formation of a group such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, but it is not essential to their continual operations. Once the group is formed and the ideology is set, the group supersedes the charismatic individual who brought it all together.

The Islamic State is not al-Baghdadi. The group is currently the most lethal manifestation of bin Ladinism, and therefore extends beyond the leadership of one man. As long as local conditions allow armed insurrection and disruption, groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, regardless of leadership, will thrive. It is too late to rely on decapitation strikes to kill an ideology that has spread across the globe. The message has escaped the scope of drones, and is now ensconced in chaotic situations from Afghanistan to Yemen. Dealing with that leaderless ideology will be the CT challenge of the near future.


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