I received “the phone call” around 5:00 am this morning, and had to drag myself out of bed to address the rumors that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (so-called “caliph” of the so-called “Islamic State”) had finally been neutralized. Although we’ve long received reports of Baghdadi’s death on numerous other occasions, this time — according to reliable sources, the news does appear to be true. In any case, I apologize in advance for any expletives that (definitely will) follow, and please note: my language, tone, and views do not (obviously) express those of my employer(s). Opinions and analysis expressed are mine, and mine alone .
I hate to say it — and I really hope that I’m wrong — but if the reported death of Baghdadi is true (whether by the self-detonation of a suicide vest or a Special Ops strike), Baghdadi’s death does not necessarily mean the end of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ as we know it. In fact, Baghdadi’s death hardly means the end of ISIS.*** The challenge of defeating ISIS has never been confined to an exclusively territorial theater of combat; rather, what some dub “the virtual caliphate” — i.e., the idea — remains viral and is unlikely to dissipate in the near future.
Before I begin, however, I need to add some critical context for the “terrorism” conversation in the United States, because the image projected by so-called Islamic State is not simply outsized, but ridiculously so — and as such, ripe for cooptation in the interests of political expediency. Lest you forget (unless, as is highly likely, you never knew this fact in the first place): Asad’s regime kills Syrian civilians at a far higher rate than ISIS could ever dream of achieving. As Obama might phrase it, let me be clear — the phenomenon of selective attention given to particular threats does not help us counter the very real threat posed by ISIS.
***I have now received confirmation that reports of Baghdadi’s death are, in fact, true. President Trump is expected to make the announcement at 9:00 EST, and will address DNA-testing and confirmation of the ISIS leader’s identity.
Now, unfortunately, I have to add the preemptive strike here (à la the Bush Doctrine, but with way less global destabilization, blowback and dead civilians — you know, ‘collateral damage’): no, ISIS is not synonymous with Islam. Muslims are, far and away, the overwhelming majority of ISIS’ victims.
It may also interest you that we in the counterterrorism field have LONG known that the greatest domestic terrorism threat facing the United States is not ‘Islamic terrorism’ (an inherently relativistic phrase, by the way, with precisely no analytical use value — another topic for another day), but rather: far-right, white nationalists (or… you know, neo-Nazis). In 2009, long term government intel analyst Daryl Johnson (with 15 years of experience monitoring right-wing threats) released a comprehensive threat report that promptly met with considerable outrage over at the Department of Homeland Security. DHS dissolved Johnson’s six-person team tracking neo-Nazis back in 2010, flash forward a decade, and…spoiler alert: read the news.
As the topic of ISIS is (many readers and followers already know this quite well) extremely personal for me, I’d also like to preemptively shut down the “well, why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism” nonsense. Concisely:
Actually, let me rephrase and “be clear” (cf, Obama):
Muslims —again, the vast majority of ISIS’ victims — do, in fact, condemn ISIS (and terrorism in general). Here, have a 712-page document compiled by one teenage Muslim woman frustrated with this nonsense, for obvious reasons. If this massive compendium fails to convince you, I recommend The Google Machine; I’ll even make it very easy for you. Muslims condemn ISIS an awful lot — especially given the fact that ISIS really enjoys killing them. More generally, here are 5,000 or so articles addressing the tired “why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism” question more broadly.
You might not know that, however, if you choose to consume mass media without keeping mind that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and human interest stories like “regular ass Muslim guy does regular ass people thing” simply don’t draw eyeballs and ad-revenue-generating clicks like conflict does. Why else do you think conflict journalists are so often dubbed “vultures?” Welcome to the financial bottom line that underpins global corporate media; sorry, this isn’t a conspiracy theory — it’s financial reality.
Back to the khaawarij lunatics known as the so-called “Islamic State” (aside: yes, I know some people are mad at me for using the term ‘khaawarij,’ but my stance on the matter is: a) far more accurate than “Salafi-Jihadi”; b) can we not even pretend that “Islamist” or “Salafi” or “politial Islamist” — indeed — even “takfiri” does the trick here?; and c) I suppose just do you boo. That said, ISIS is not khaawarij on one criteria, at least — unlike the khawaarij, so called ‘Islamic State’ does, in fact, believe Qurayshi descent constitutes a prerequisite for the title of caliph).
Back to the point. Post-Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden was marginalized, and in hiding; the Iraq war allowed (a new and far more insidious) Al Qaeda to regroup under the leadership of renegade psychopath (albeit military and media genius) Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi. I fear that Baghdadi’s death, ultimately, won’t be a game changer.
ISIS isn’t structured like Al Qaeda. In contrast to the AQ network of decentralized cells (post-Afghanistan, to be clear), so-called Islamic State formed an organization simultaneously centralized in multiple locations (see quasi-capitals in both Raqqa and Mosul) intended to be resilient in the event of decapitation strikes. Regrouping won’t be as hard. ISIS learned from Al Qaeda’s missteps — a network structure overly reliant on a singular charismatic figurehead like Bin Laden.
Look at previous decapitation strikes of key ISIS figures, and you’ll see how resilience was built into the organization’s structure. Take out one key target, and there are already 2 replacements waiting in the wings.
No way in hell this isn’t the case for Baghdadi as well. From the beginning, ISIS took considerable security measures to obscure Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s identity — vs. Al Qaeda’s reliance on Osama Bin Laden as the iconic “face” of the organization.
In fact, ISIS leadership before al-Baghdadi’s 2010 ascension (to the helm of the then-Mujahideen Shura Council, followed by Islamic State of Iraq) followed similar protocols and security precautions , such as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi— to the extent that many (both within the U.S. military, rival organizations, wondered if such leaders existed in name and symbolism only.
Baghdadi was deliberately downplayed in all of ISIS’ propaganda — unlike much of Al Qaeda’s.
This is an excellent point, but at the same time — it’s absurd to think that ISIS hasn’t planned for such a situation, and I would particularly bet that upper echelons of the leadership have sought a potential Qurayshi successor. In any case, ISIS as an organization has always been, and will continue to be, a group focused on the idea of a caliphate — far more than any figurehead (iconic, charismatic figurehead or no). Call ISIS whatever we like, but they aren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination.
Baghdadi most definitely had a cult of personality that exerted considerable influence among fighters, but the more influential aspect of ISIS as a draw always lay in the idea of khilaafa — not in its figurehead.
Baghdadi was notorious for rarely being seen by ISIS members (even the upper echelon), and many leaders hadn’t seen his face aside from the (extremely) rare appearances the world (as a whole) already knows about.
The deliberate obfuscation of “Baghdadi the man” has always been part of ISIS’ tactic to root the charismatic appeal of so-called ‘Islamic State’ not in a singular figurehead, but rather ‘khilaafa’ itself.
In ISIS propaganda, although we do see occasional mentions of ‘Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” these are EXTREMELY rare in comparison with an emphasis on the establishment of an ostensible khilaafa (caliphate) in the here-and-now (vs. Al Qaeda’s gradualist approach), to whom all Muslims owe allegiance and for whom hijra (migration) constitutes a religious obligation. Spoiler for the ISIS sympathizers in the room — that’s not how a caliphate works. That’s not how any of this shit works.
So-called “Islamic State” exerts an appeal NOT because of Baghdadi, but because of the powerful appeal of the ‘caliphate’ itself — specifically, the long-sought dream of its revival. No way in hell ISIS doesn’t already have successors (of Qurayshi descent) already in line.
I consume ISIS propaganda all day, every day (unfortunately) for work, and it gives me zero pleasure to write any of these dire predictions.But I am, because everyone needs to know the reality before politicians crow “mission accomplished!”
Keep in mind — over the years, we’ve had NUMEROUS reports of Baghdadi’s death (proven false much later) — none of these hindered ISIS’ operational capacities.
Here are a just few (among many, many more examples):
Indeed, in 2016, an ISIS announcement of Baghdadi’s obituary began circulating on social media — although the publication ultimately proved fraudulent, the fake did not deter the organization’s operational capacities anywhere near the blow dealt by territorial loss, nor did sympathizers’ affection for the group appear to wane. In short: psyops fail.
I am not posting any of these “Baghdadi dead” news reports to cast doubt on today’s reports that Baghdadi has been killed. I am emphasizing the fact that — to recap — previous “Baghdadi deaths” haven not, in fact, hurt ISIS nearly as much as territorial losses (by ANY stretch of imagination).
ISIS has long relegated the image and persona of Baghdadi to the background specifically to keep global focus (rank-and-file recruits, as well as everyone else) on the IDEA of the caliphate, which has — and always will be — the primary draw of so-called ‘Islamic State.’
Intel experts and ISIS specialists have long speculated about the potential successors to Baghdadi — whether in a military / political capacity, or as the (alleged) religious title-holder ‘caliph.’
In2017, Baghdadi’s potential successors (not in the role of ‘caliph,’ to be clear) included Iyad al-Obaidi and Ayad al-Jumaili. As far as I am aware (correct me if I’m wrong, other ISIS specialists), Baghdadi is not known to have designated a successor himself — at least not publicly.
There is a reason Baghdadi has long been termed “The Ghost,” and it has EVERYTHING to do with so-called Islamic State’s strategic organizational capacities — deliberately intended to relegate leadership / figureheads to the background. A 2017 report of Baghdadi’s death describes “the Ghost” strategy as follows:
‘Keeping a low profile — in contrast to slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — helped Baghdadi to survive for years despite a $25-million US bounty on his head.’
It bears mentioning, however, that ISIS’ strategy of relegating its primary figurehead and ostensible leader to a background role (like ISIS itself) did not start with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — and it is highly unlikely to end with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
I previously referenced predecessors to so-called ‘Islamic State,’ and it bears repeating that ISIS learned from earlier organization’s mistakes — namely, Osama Bin Laden’s fondness for releasing audio-visual “proof of life” for every report of his marginalization, inactivity, or death. In contrast to Al Qaeda’s embrace of Bin Laden’s role as charismatic, iconic figurehead, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s predecessors in the Mujahideen Shura Council (and later Islamic State of Iraq) proved so murky that the U.S. Military, rival organizations, Iraqi security forces, and internal members alike could not agree on whether the “leader” in question — Zarqawi’s heir — actually existed in anything but name.
Back to the issue of succession, and whether or not Baghdadi’s death is the “End of ISIS” (smartass jab at Francis Fukuyama 100% intended), as early as 2014, media outlets (excerpted below) were quite aware of the challenges facing a decapitation-style strike intended to dismantle ISIS, given the organization’s structure and deliberate prioritization of resilience as a key component.
Whoever replaces Baghdadi in his capacity as caliph depends on the consensus of the ISIS shura council — a deliberative body that is HIGHLY unlike to meet in-person, given security precautions.
If I were Special Ops (I’m not), I’d target couriers to deliver an *actual* blow.
Locating and eliminating couriers for members of the ISIS shura council (and, by extension, hopefully the shura council membership as a whole) would do far more to throw ISIS into disarray than merely assassinating Baghdadi. Couriers are, in fact, precisely how the United States was able to eliminate both Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden.
It bears mentioning here… We’ve got another huge issue with thinking “Baghdadi’s death is the end of ISIS like Osama Bin Laden’s death hurt Al Qaeda.” Osama Bin Laden was weakened way the hell before his death in May 2011. Al Qaeda was fragmented and splintered, on the run, after the Afghanistan attacks in 2001. Bin Laden was effectively marginalized in hiding, issuing a statement here and there — but that’s it.
Al Qaeda was able to regroup, and rise like a demonic phoenix from the ashes, in the wake of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Bin Laden’s marginalization also meant he couldn’t control Zarqawi (although both he and second-in-command Aymen al-Zawahiri sure gave it ‘the ole college try’).
Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, in fact, is responsible for the recalibration of the ‘Al Qaeda brand’ eventually birthed ISIS, yet another unfortunate link in the “OOPS IRAQ WAS A GIANT, COUNTERPRODUCTIVE MISTAKE” chain of “why we are where we are now.” When Obama successfully killed Bin Laden in May 2011, frankly— it didn’t really mean shit any longer.
Asan aside, I lived in Morocco at the time, and will never forget overhearing an exchange between two men (who always bickered about U.S. foreign policy and [then] president Obama) at a café where I routinely had my morning coffee:
— “Hey, did you hear the news?”
— “What news?”
— “The U.S. took out Osama.”
— “Huh. Hey, are you down to catch the Real Madrid match tonight?”
To be fair, it might have been Barca that played that evening; I cannot recall the precise football team under discussion — but I damn sure remember the exchange, particularly from the two men on whom I always eavesdropped. No, not because I’m a spy (spoiler alert: I’m not — thank God for us all); I’m just nosy (their discussion about “girl problems” never failed to be hilariously entertaining).
Bin Laden long since lost control of Al Qaeda. Instead, Zarqawi’s redefinition of the organization fundamentally altered the network’s strategies, tactics, and identity. Osama Bin Laden’s successor — Aymen al-Zawahiri — never, ever had the charisma or unifying draw that Bin Laden did at the height of his leadership.
(Seriously, listen to a Zawahiri speech vs. Bin Laden’s rhetoric — for just one example of what I mean — boring as hell.)
In any case, ISIS is nothing if not adaptable and resilient. ISIS learns lessons from predecessors’ missteps, both in terms of ‘outbidding’ competitors, as well as shoring up points of organizational weakness. Unfortunately, the anti-ISIS coalition has not proven so adept.
Remember the triumphalist block parties that broke out when Americans heard the news “Osama Bin Laden is dead?” Fast-forward to Syria and Yemen, to name just two cases.
Uh, yeah. Basically:
Triumphalism may feel good in the moment, but in dealing with groups like ISIS, it’s … counterproductive. And, frankly — fucking stupid.
Torecap (for the ‘guess what Al Qaeda is still here’ in my Twitter mentions) — Bin Laden’s marginalization and fragmentation after Afghanistan dealt AQ a severe blow. A blow Al Qaeda readily overcame, thanks to the idiotic US war on Iraq in 2003 — and one which had fuck-all to do with OBL. But, like a shitty jihadi remake of Field of Dreams (The Iraq Sequel), if you build it — they will come. Good job, Dubya.
Zarqawi was essentially given free reign in Iraq (because of AQ HQ’s fragmentation at the time), leading to the transformation of Al Qaeda into a much more vicious entity — even to the extent that Bin Laden tried to get him back in line and tone it down (see above).
Spoiler — Bin Laden failed.
For more on how Badghadi’s death *could* impact ISIS (or not), absolutely follow @hxhassan — who explicitly addressed the issue of resilience in ISIS’ organizational structure in numerous articles and books.
Stupid shit like the 2003 Iraq War let Al Qaeda regroup, and come back bigger than ever. Yes, the Surge and Sahwa temporarily drove them out, but…welcome to Syria. They’re baaaaaaack. Further, the roots of ISIS are located in 2003’s post-Iraq invasion context. Sorry: FACTS.
Obama didn’t “end” Al Qaeda.
Trump didn’t “end” ISIS.
Dubya sure as hell didn’t bring Iraq peace & stability.
Back to Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the ridiculous idea that the end of Baghdadi means the end of the bullshit ‘caliphate’ idea. ISIS was able to ‘outbid’ Al Qaeda for several reasons in the context of Syria’s theater of combat (as well as the virtual battleground).
Keep in mind: this doesn’t mean AQ is neutralized today, or even significantly damaged at present (they sure could’ve been, barring 2003 Iraq).
There are crucial differences and distinctions between the two organizations (network vs. para-state, for example) that must be considered in any evaluation of Baghdadi’s death as a key factor in destroying the so-called ‘Islamic State’ — whether in territorial holdings, or in global appeal (and guess what? The latter is a hell of a lot more difficult).
Al Qaeda wanted a caliphate “eventually,” and advocated a gradualist approach to awakening the masses. ISIS declared a caliphate in the here-and-now, a tangible, territorial ‘reality.’ That’s one key difference — and a powerful draw.
Al Qaeda was a network, focused on operations. ISIS saw itself as a state, anchored in territory — focused on everything from operations to sustaining a cradle-to-grave population: state-building.
Another critical distinction accessing Al Qaeda propaganda (until al-Awlaki) meant, for the most part, password-protected chat rooms (necessitating vetting for the already-interested).
Accessing ISIS propaganda meant logging onto Twitter.
The process of joining Al Qaeda and ISIS, moreover, also entailed very different mechanisms and contrasting prerequisites / “bars to entry.” Think of AQ as the ‘jihadi Ivy Leagues.’ You needed damn good recommendations. ISIS’ need for a population essentially meant: ‘come on over. We need janitors, housewives, bakers, etc.’
Baghdadi’s death could help weaken ISIS in some ways, however. But keep in mind that the following are my most optimistic points of analysis.
If coalition forces can locate members of the shura council through their couriers, and eliminate the group as a whole, this would go a long way towards throwing ISIS leadership structures into disarray.
Whoever replaces Baghdadi in his capacity as caliph depends on the consensus of the ISIS shura council — a deliberative body that is HIGHLY unlike to meet in-person, given security precautions (that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if even the 8-member shura council has 16 additional ‘understudies’ in the wings — much like other key roles in ISIS’ anti-decapitation strike strategy).
Once again, if I were Special Ops (I’m not), I’d target couriers to deliver an *actual* blow.
We’ve been warning you — for years — that the more territorial losses with which ISIS is faced, the more ‘lone wolf’ (and organized-from-afar) attacks we will see in the (so-called) ‘West.’
Don’t for a second think Baghdadi’s death will somehow curtail this trend. It won’t.
In light of my ridiculous Twitter mentions (accusing me of supporting ISIS with this analysis), let me clarify where I stand on ISIS:
ISIS = bad.
Can we move on now? Alright, that’s settled.
Since the emergence of so-called “Islamic State,” the world has continually underestimated this organization. These missteps have not only allowed the group to wreak havoc inside Iraq and Syria, but far beyond those nations’ borders.
Territorial losses of ISIS’ “homeland” in Syria and Iraq, moreover, presents a far different fragmentation effect than that experienced by Al Qaeda post-Afghanistan. This, again, gets back to structure — AQ was a network, and ISIS a territorially-based STATE (far more people, including soldiers as well as civilians — yes, civilians, whether hostage residents of areas seized by so-called Islamic State, or the muhajireen [immigrants]).
ISIS took and held territory for years, which enabled the construction of sustained and organized military training for a critical MASS of fighters. Al Qaeda lacked that breadth, duration, and organizational resource.
So scattering ISIS doesn’t mean nearly as much as the fragmentation of Al Qaeda did (at least, before the United States fucked up all our own progress with that bullshit 2003 war on Iraq).
Here’s where I’m about to REALLY piss people off. So buckle up and prepare your rage messages and Tweets, y’all. Go ahead and shoot the messenger.
ISIS learned from predecessors’ mistakes.
So why can’t the United States?
I talk about this subject a lot in other areas, threads, and publications, but — one KEY reason ISIS is so successful? ISIS consistently uses your own unrecognized bigotry as a weapon against you. They’re playing you.
And you fall for it every damn time. Maybe try stopping.
ISIS relies on ‘the West’ underestimating it as “medieval, backwards, monstrous barbarians incapable of logic, reason, and rationality.” Guess how they’ve outsmarted “us” time and time again. Fucking OOPS.
If you’re interested, here are some of my (expletive-free and peer-reviewed) publications on ISIS’ weaponization of anti-Islam bigotry to achieve what they have. The ‘Western’-facing ‘brand identity’ of so-called ‘Islamic State’ is encapsulated by what I term Evil™. You can read about it in this issue of Critical Studies on Security(2018).
In addition, I wrote this brief for the United Nations, specifically addressing the appeal of so-called Islamic State propaganda as well as policy recommendations for smarter strategies to counter that appeal:
Tosum up (for now): Baghdadi’s death may cause ISIS some temporary problems, but is 100% not the end of so-called ‘Islamic State.’ Mark my words: ISIS is an idea far bigger, longer lasting, and more dangerous than any singular charismatic figurehead.
Apparently, Trump will announce Baghdadi’s death at 9:00 EST, so for the sake of my blood pressure — I am seriously considering cancelling my Internet service in the next half hour.
So…Let’s talk about Trump’s ‘Victory Speech’ (or whatever the fresh hell that was)…
I really, really don’t have the time, patience, or low enough blood pressure to deal with this nonsense in full — but assuming you’ve read this far, I do want to highlight some key Trump talking points that, frankly, are batshitcrazy at best, and horrifically counterproductive in measured reality.
— “These savage monsters will not escape the final judgment of God” — this is EXACTLY what ISIS would like every opponent to see them. That’s precisely their ‘Western’-facing brand identity. Scroll back just a few paragraphs to skim my article about Evil™.
Our president is leading the country directly into ISIS’ hands — and I, for one, am terrified that we will continue to fall for it, particularly the masses who see ISIS as the “ever-present monster under the bed” — with no idea (or, indeed, it seems the desire to know) that ISIS doesn’t particularly care about you in the ‘West.’ Nope. ISIS is far more concerned with slaughtering Muslims they deem ‘deviant’ (in layman’s terms: fucking EVERYBODY).
Hook. Line. Sinker.
And, of course, like any autocratic megalomaniac (hello, Cheeto Gaddafi), Trump used the occasion of Baghdadi’s death to hype not only his Internet skills (I wish I were joking) — “These people use the Internet better than anyone — perhaps anyone other than Donald Trump” — but also his own goddamn books.
Trump claims he “called it” on the dangers of Osama Bin Laden before anyone else, back when he was still a “civilian.” News flash, dipshit: you’re still a civilian. More to the point: we already KNEW Bin Laden was a threat, given things like…the U.S.S. Cole Bombing in Yemen, as well as the bombing of United States embassies in East Africa.
Finally, I pretty much lost my temper hearing my friends’ names come out of Trump’s mouth, knowing DAMN WELL what Jim and Steven would’ve thought about Cheeto Jesus. But that’s not the worst part. The most disgusting part of Trump’s ‘Victory Speech’ (well, it’s hard to pick just one aspect) is the way in which the President took great measures to frame the fight against ISIS as a war against Islam, instead of a khawaarij sect of fringe lunatics, and naive children like Shamima Begum who believed a very different set of propaganda than that aimed at the so-called “us” in the United States.
FOR EXAMPLE, Trump parroted the usual talking points of so-called Islamic State brutal attacks and genocidal campaigns against Shia, Yazidi, and Christian populations. While true, Trump neglects to mention that Sunni Muslims — and Muslims in general — are, and were, the primary target of ISIS, thus furthering the skewed perception that so-called Islamic State is — somehow — synonymous with Islam.
Exactly as ISIS wants.
A perfect example of this framing can be found in — infuriatingly — Trump’s refusal to refer to Abdurrahman Kessig by his chosen name. Abdurrahman’s birth name was “Peter,” but after his conversion to Islam — and decision to go to Syria as an aid worker — he took the name “Abdurrahman” (slave of “The Merciful [God]).”
I absolutely do not believe, in any circumstance, that this omission was accidental, particularly in light of the rest of that ‘speech,’ which was largely framed — and, in my opinion, dangerously, and deliberately as a conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim.
As always, I have a lot more to say, but I’ll leave that for further articles, and the media interviews I’m doing this week on the subject, so stay tuned for expletive-free rants on the same subject.
The vast majority of victims dead and brutalized at the hands of so-called ‘Islamic State,’ and the world should never, ever forget that — not, of course, unless you’d like this conflict to continue, and for ISIS to win.
I — for one — sure as hell do not.
Postscript to the Postscript:
Shortly after I posted this rant, I joined Jeremy Scahill and Mike Giglio on Intercepted to address the issue (with fewer expletives…a few fewer, anyway), which you can listen to here.
If you’d like further analysis – with zero expletives at all (CAN YOU FUCKING BELIEVE MY SELF CONTROL????) – Atlantic Council asked me to address the issue in an article: “The death of Baghdadi: How ISIS used al-Qaeda’s mistakes to grow a caliphate.”