Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was conducted via email over the last week.
Brad Nelson: There are a lot of things happening in Syria lately. Basically, it's been non-stop Syria news for the last few weeks or so. Here, in this exchange, let’s focus on much-discussed, much-hyped event: the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS. What do you make of it? And what kind of impact will it have on ISIS?
Yohanes Sulaiman: While the death of al Baghdadi is significant in terms of PR for Trump and a blow to the ego of the ISIS, in a larger strategic picture, this does not have that much of an impact. ISIS has been in decline for the past few years. ISIS managed to get big because the conditions were right: Syria was in disarray while Iraq's government has lacking in legitimacy, providing fertile grounds for ISIS to grow and to gain a significant chuck of territory. Due to its brutality, though, ISIS ended up being hated and hounded by everyone. And its opponents have gotten wiser in dealing with it—e.g. attacking its internet propaganda infrastructure, establishing improving deradicalization programs, etc. While ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks remain a problem, it is not that significant of a threat.
What next for ISIS? I think a collaboration with al Qaeda (AQ) probably its best option. Based on the fact that al Baghdadi was found in a stronghold of AQ in Syria, the two groups probably reached an accommodation of some sort.
BN: I see al-Baghdadi's death as simply accelerating trends that are already in motion. It pushes the group further toward decentralization. As the caliphate crumbled and its fighters have gone underground, ISIS has less sway over its affiliates and franchises. And without a credible leader right now, that's even more so the case. And then there's the prospect that al-Baghdadi's successor will likely lack his military, religious, and organizational credentials. If the next ISIS leader is a step back from al-Baghdadi in terms of respect and prestige, there's the chance that its affiliates will try to take advantage of the situation by broadening and deepening their autonomy from ISIS HQ and a few might even defect, sliding toward AQ.
There is already lots of talk of ISIS lashing out now--as it seeks to avenge al-Baghdadi's death, remain relevant, and forestall any defections. Sure, we might see an uptick in ISIS-related violence. However, keep in mind that ISIS was already very violent, wielding violence almost indiscriminantly, so I really don't anticipate too much change there.
Bruce Hoffman has argued that an AQ-ISIS merger (or really a re-merger) could well happen. I'm a little more skeptical, at least for now. Yes, collaboration is something ISIS could opt for, but it would probably be unwise at the moment. AQ knows that ISIS is in flux (having lost its leader and recently promoted a possible neophyte), and as a result, al-Zawahiri is likely to see ISIS as weakened and desperate. AQ has the bargaining leverage. If ISIS wants to work with AQ, then AQ would be smart to demand it happening on AQ's terms. Would ISIS go for that? It’s unknown at this point, especially since we don't know much about al-Hashemi thus far.
My expectation is this: Rather than working with ISIS, I expect AQ to try to drive the stake in ISIS's heart by attempting to sow further divisions within ISIS and even press ISIS affiliates to switch teams. Why fold (in its competition with ISIS) when AQ has an opportunity to win the game, so to speak?
YS: Keep in mind that ISIS and its ilk can only be successful under narrow main conditions: first is the weaknesses of the states where they operate, and second, when states are simply unprepared to deal with these groups. So, I don't think we will see an emergence of a third group or reemergence of both AQ and ISIS as a global jihadist network at this point. Syria and Iraq are still in a mess, but they are stabilizing, and the populace are totally alienated due to ISIS brutality. Afghanistan remains a weak state, but the Taliban is more of a local phenomenon than an international movement. Same thing with Somalia and Nigeria. Terrorists there are really a product of local movements that tried to link themselves to a global jihadist movement. And nowadays states are far more prepared to deal with the reemergence of the new al-Qaeda or ISIS. Granted, this does not rule out any lone wolf attacks, but as John Mueller notes, especially in the US, the risk of a terrorist attack is very low, and in Europe, the police are much wiser to deal with the threats. And financing, especially from the Gulf States, is drying up. While terrorists may be able to work with local jihadist groups or criminal groups for financing, it seems to me that ISIS might find it harder than al Qaeda due to its extremism.
BN: Iraq and Syria are among the most chaotic, unstable, and violent states in the world. There are ample opportunities for AQ and ISIS to re-emerge there if the metaphorical foot is taken off their throats. Plus, ISIS still has anywhere from 14-18,000 foot soldiers, so that group still has a deep bench, with arms, and millions of dollars the group has squirreled away.
Regarding AQ: AQ is still very strong in Iraq and Syria. Research from Colin Clarke and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, among others, on the political dynamics in Syria says that AQ has embedded itself in local structures and populations in Syria, and it's going to be hard to remove the group. And AQ has had a longstanding presence in Sunni Iraqis areas since shortly after the US invasion in 2003.
All of this, in combination with some of the things I've already said in this exchange, leads me to believe that both groups are still formidable, though ISIS is the more dangerous global terrorist group. It's a desperate, decentralized group looking to remain relevant and important globally. It's very likely seeking quick "wins" right now. AQ is playing a different game. It doesn't have the same short-term, narrow perspective. There is also accumulating evidence that AQ has learned the lessons of its past, learned from the mistakes of ISIS, and learned from the "successes" of groups like Hezbollah. As a result, AQ is biding its time, regrouping and establishing momentum in the broader Middle East. And for those reasons, AQ isn't quite the global threat that ISIS is, in my view.
BN: The one last point I’d like to make concerns the organizational literature’s thoughts on the death of al-Baghdadi. Jacob Shapiro, Jenna Jordan, and others others, have written on how mature, bureaucratized, layered terrorist organizations that have targeted wellsprings of support can withstand the loss of key leaders. These groups have built-in rules and processes that allow militants to get promoted up the ranks as needed; they also have the requisite base of support to replenish the ranks as militants either get promoted, killed, or simply defect from the organization.
This, of course, doesn’t describe all terror groups. Many groups are young, fragile, and very reliant on a leader. By contrast, ISIS is a classic example of a bureaucratized group with a strong base of support—both locally, regionally, and internationally. ISIS has the infrastructure to move into a post-Baghdadi era. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But for those expecting ISIS to fade away, well, that’s unlikely.
The good part, though, is that the group isn't nearly the global menace it was in 2015, it's unlikely to recapture its past glory and power, and it has been plagued by what Max Abrahms calls "stupid" leadership.
In short, ISIS faces a dilemma. It can go underground, rest and recover, but risk getting eclipsed once again by AQ. This is the safe choice. Or it can continue to act as an impulsive, ultra-violent organization, in order to retain global brand visibility and attention. This is the risky and arguably dumbest choice. Because in remaining violent, killing everyone and everything in its path, ISIS will remain the subject of a harsh counterterrorism measures by states around the world. And those counterterrorism efforts will make life very difficult for the group and its members. They degrade ISIS's capabilities, create a brain drain through attrition, and effectively hem in the group. My guess is that ISIS will chose the second option. This will keep the group in the news and as a global threat to security, but also ensure that it is constantly hounded and on the run.