Conflict

What Next for ISIS After the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

Syria

The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi represents an important point for the group after its complete territorial losses in Iraq and Syria

Over the weekend, the world woke up to the news that ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed during a raid at a safe compound near the village of Barisha in Syria’s north-western Idlib Province. Baghdadi was killed alongside his deputy, Abu Said al-Iraqi, and Abu al-Yaman, the head of the group’s security in Syria. Shortly after Baghdadi’s death, the ISIS spokesperson, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was also killed by an airstrike while in a vehicle in Jarablus, further north in Aleppo Province.

Baghdadi’s death represents an important point in the fight against ISIS. Although the group still has fragments of an ideological and strategic framework, the deaths of top leaders, including Baghdadi who was the political and spiritual leader of the group and its most recognisable face, will be a blow to the group’s symbolic goals. Unless the group manages to replace him with a leader that evokes similar inspiration and loyalty as well as fitting the group’s own narrow definitions of who is qualified to be a Caliph, it is likely that the group will splinter.

Around the world, Baghdadi’s death evoked positive reactions. For many who have lived in fear of the group’s next attack against ordinary people, Baghdadi’s death will represent a modicum of closure. Indeed, in Iraq and Syria, minorities such as Yazidis and Christians, who were heavily impacted by the group’s acts of genocide, have particularly viewed Baghdadi’s death as a payback of sorts. These views were also present among Sunni Arabs, which the group claimed to protect. The family of Muath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot who was subject of a horrific execution at the hands of the militants, was especially vocal in their response to the news, feeling that their son has finally been avenged.

The operation was also an example of international cooperation against terrorism, with numerous governments including Turkey, Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) acknowledging their role in sharing intelligence that led to Baghdadi’s killing. Although a number of details are yet to be revealed about the exact role played by each actor, such cooperation could continue in order to ensure that the victory against ISIS can be sustained.

Indeed, ensuring that the group’s ideology dies with Baghdadi will be an essential goal for the near-future. Across Iraq and Syria, the group has already been conducting insurgency attacks. Such attacks will likely pick up as the group seeks revenge for the killing of its leader. We should all remember that these attacks come not from a place of strength, but a place of weakness and not allow the group’s self-narrative of strength gain momentum.

Defeating the group’s ideology will also depend on ensuring that the group’s supporters are not allowed to raise a new generation of militants. This is particularly a danger in Syria and Iraq where thousands of children affiliated with the group are held in horrible conditions. Many of these children had no choice when it comes to being part of ISIS and deserve a chance at a new life through re-radicalisation and other life-affirming opportunities that will highlight how hollow life under ISIS truly is.

Baghdadi’s death comes at a turbulent time even by the standards of the region. Lebanon and Iraq have both been experiencing major protests. Furthermore, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and others have also witnessed persistent protest movements. While details vary, all these movements want similar things: No corruption, good governance, a fair justice system and, most important, an end to rule via sectarian affiliations. Although some of these protests descended to violence, the vast majority of them have been peaceful and put significant pressure on decades of corruption, oppression and nepotism that hollowed out the society in these countries. As ISIS tries to remain a viable force following Baghdadi’s death, we must remember that a vision for a better society different to the one promoted by ISIS is possible.