Baghdadi may be gone, but his empire will live on

By David Blair
Chief Foreign Correspondent
02 May 2015

The Isil leader may have been wounded in an air strike, but the terrorist movement no longer depends on him

After leading a desert blitzkrieg across Syria and Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood before thousands of followers and proclaimed himself “Caliph” of a new “Islamic State”.

Yet the bloodsoaked reign of a terrorist who achieved global prominence by conquering swathes of the Middle East now appears to have been cut short by one American air strike.

Iraq’s government and other sources are convinced that far from leading his men in battle, Baghdadi now lies critically wounded and receiving constant care. A US air raid near the town of Al-Baaj, 90 miles west of the Iraqi city of Mosul, appears to have injured Baghdadi and killed three of his companions on March 18.

The self-styled “Caliph” is understood have suffered spinal damage for which he requires continuous treatment. As a result, Baghdadi is thought to be incapacitated and no longer in command of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

Instead, de facto leadership of the movement has passed to a council of senior commanders, including Baghdadi’s supposed deputy, Abu Alaa al-Afri.

If his injuries are as serious as reported, then Baghdadi is unlikely to recover and the transfer of power within Isil will become permanent. The terrorist movement would then have lost a brutally skilful commander with an American bounty of $10 million on his head.

Baghdadi fought tooth and nail for a decade after being released from US custody in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq in 2004. As such, he is a product of the terrorist version of Darwinian selection. Only the fittest could have survived the onslaught mounted by US forces against men like Baghdadi, particularly during the “surge” in 2007-08 when an extra 30,000 American soldiers were hurled against al-Qaeda’s network in Iraq.

Baghdadi, now 44, emerged from that particular furnace to become al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq in 2010. Aided by Syria’s descent into civil war, he managed to transform a marginal organisation, reduced by the US offensive to a few hundred fighters, into an independent force capable of seizing thousands of square miles of territory and ruling millions of people.

Baghdadi, who broke away from al-Qaeda and founded Isil, ruthlessly exploited the opportunity presented by Syria’s agony.

Back in 2013, he captured oilfields in the deserts of eastern Syria, using these assets to fill a war-chest and make Isil perhaps the richest terrorist movement in history.

At the same time, he steadily infiltrated the Sunni Arab areas of northern and central Iraq. In Mosul, the biggest urban centre in northern Iraq with a population of 1.5 million, Baghdadi’s men were running protection rackets and even levying taxes for months before the city fell into their hands during last summer’s offensive. Isil’s empire is now the home for many foreign fighters, including the likes of Mohamed Emwazi, the Londoner also known as “Jihadi John” who has executed a number of British and American hostages.

Cautious about his own security, Baghdadi made his one and only public appearance in July last year, standing before worshippers in the Noori Mosque in Mosul and declaring himself to be “Caliph Ibrahim”, the leader of what he called the new “Islamic State”.

For all Baghdadi’s bloodstained achievements, however, Isil would still survive his loss, according to Professor Toby Dodge, the director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

“The organisation’s coherence does not rely on him,” said Prof Dodge. “Baghdadi is one of collective leadership and behind him stand a series of figures who undoubtedly have a lifetime of experience in intelligence and violence.”

Isil’s leaders include hardened veterans of the Iraqi army and intelligence service from Saddam Hussein’s era. At its core, Isil amounts to an alliance between survivors of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and a new generation of Sunni Islamist zealots.

They share the goal of overthrowing Iraq’s Shia-led government, which they regard as being a puppet of Iran, and restoring the Sunni supremacy in Baghdad that was swept away with Saddam’s downfall in 2003.

As such, Isil is merely an expression of the alienation of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, comprising about 20 per cent of the population. Baghdadi’s death or incapacitation would not change this central fact.

“The organisation itself is simply a symptom of the grievances arising from an Iraqi state was set up in 2003 and systematically represses and alienates the Sunnis,” said Prof Dodge.

Isil would continue without Baghdadi, but the movement might still be weakened by his loss. Little is known about his possible successor, Abu Alaa al-Afri, who may not share his military or strategic skills. The pragmatic alliance between the Islamists and the Ba’athists may also break down. Forcing a split within Isil’s ranks, perhaps along this faultline, will be a central goal of Western intelligence agencies.

In any case, an Iraqi government offensive, backed by US and coalition air power, has succeeded in breaking Isil’s grip on thousands of square miles. So far this year, Isil has lost about a quarter of its territory, including most of the city of Tikrit.

In addition, an effective combination of US air strikes and Kurdish resistance prevented Isil from capturing the town of Kobane in northern Syria. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish forces have advanced north of Mosul, cutting vital links between the city and Isil-held territory in Syria. If Mosul is completely surrounded, this would pave the way for the city to be recaptured.

Isil has managed to stay on the offensive in the Euphrates valley, particularly by attacking the city of Ramadi in central Iraq. But local people have fought back, aided by government forces, and Isil units have found themselves tied down in what may become a war of attrition that the extremists cannot win.

Isil have almost certainly passed the peak of their powers, locking them into a slow and painful decline. If Baghdadi has been removed from the scene, his sudden departure might have coincided with the zenith of the movement that he helped to create.

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