Column | The death of Baghdadi may change terrorist landscape

Islamic State airs video purporting to be leader al-Baghdadi, cites Sri Lanka attacks
File Photo: The reclusive leader of the Islamic State militant group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, speaks from the balcony of a mosque in Iraq's second city, Mosul, in this still image taken from a video posted on the Internet in 2014. Photo: Reuters

History has repeated itself when President Donald Trump announced the forced suicide of the leader of the Islamic State (IS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in north-western Syria. In a similar operation in 2011, President Barack Obama had announced the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan's Abbottabad. Both were dreaded and wanted terrorists for a long time, but appeared invincible in spite of the efforts of the world’s most powerful military force with the biggest intelligence network. Both were suspected to have been supported by the US at one time or another for their own purposes in the Middle East. Both were eliminated by determined action by the US at a time of its choice. The timings chosen for ending their careers of terror and mayhem were also unexpected. A mix of political necessity and sheer frustration may have forced the US to choose the time and place of their deaths.

There were differences too. The US should have known for quite some time that Osama was under the protection of Pakistan. But the then-President Obama may have been reluctant to expose Pakistan’s perfidy till it was politically expedient to do so. In the case of Baghdadi, the end came after the IS had lost much of the territory it had captured. But the final push against the IS became muddled as the US appeared to leave the field for Russia, Turkey and Syria. Therefore, it was all the more surprising that the US mounted the attack on Baghdadi at this time. There may have been operational factors, but they are never revealed in such cases. A criticism was heard that the President gave too many details of the operation.

In terms of the impact made on the psyche of the west, the damage done by Osama was far greater than what Baghdadi did. So the sense of relief and triumph articulated by President Obama was much greater than the proclamation by President Trump. But the dignity and restraint in Obama’s words were a contrast to the brash and vengeful words used by Trump: "Last night the United States brought the world's No. 1 terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organization anywhere in the world. The United States has been searching for al-Baghdadi for many years. Capturing or killing him has been the top national security priority of my administration. U.S. special operations forces executed a dangerous and daring night-time raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style. The U.S. personnel were incredible. I got to watch much of it," said Trump as though the killing of Baghdadi was his mission as President.

Trump surprised his own security advisers by giving such details that would embarrass them. He said that Baghdadi "died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering, crying, and screaming all the way….. He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased them down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast, the tunnel had caved in on it in addition." Trump said that the details were necessary to be released so that his followers should know that  Baghdadi did not die a hero. He "died like a dog, he died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming, and crying.”

Trump’s bluster and his action were clearly with an eye on the impeachment process and more importantly, the elections. It was only after Baghdadi lost the territory he had held and administered and IS itself had weakened that action was taken to eliminate him. Whether Baghdadi’s death will help Trump is yet to be seen. But he has certainly won praise both at home and abroad on account of his victory and the blow it inflicted on IS. Trump has been looking out for a way to mark the conclusion of his fight against IS and Baghdadi’s killing may open an escape route for him. It may be recalled that Trump had tried a similar exercise to leave Afghanistan by doing a quick fix with the Taliban. Trump’s unpredictability continues unabated.

Though Baghdadi’s death will change the terrorist landscape in the Middle East, it will not be the end of IS or terrorism. His grand vision of marching to Rome will be inherited by his successors. The way IS confirmed Baghdadi’s death and announced his successor shows that a clear hierarchy exists in his outfit despite the setback it had suffered in recent months. The group still poses a threat to Syria, particularly since hundreds of its fighters and their family members escaped detention during the Turkish military operation this month, which had aggravated the situation.

The main instrument of IS has been the internet. It could attract many people from different parts of the world to a Promised Land through its websites and other platforms. Many people believed that it could provide a clean administration in the territories it occupied. Whether the remaining elements in the IS would be capable to orchestrate such propaganda is doubtful. Although many of the group's fighters have said in interviews over the years that they were not fighting for any individual but for the larger cause — an Islamic state-building project— it is undeniable that Baghdadi held a kind of elusive charisma for the organization. Under a new leader, regrouping and reorganising activities may pose many challenges. The death of Baghdadi is likely to weaken the Islamic State's command and control network. It may also cause some of its affiliates to assert independence or go back to the localised conflicts they were engaged in.

The Islamic State could closely follow the trajectory of al-Qaeda following the killing of Osama in May 2011. After his death, Osama's long-time deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was appointed to lead al-Qaeda into its next phase. Zawahiri lacked both charisma and the ability to offer a unifying presence to keep the group's transnational network together. Such splits can lead affiliates in far-flung locales to pursue more parochial interests and rebuff advice from central leadership thousands of miles away. An altogether different outfit may emerge in the process. Terrorist groups are like Hydra in Greek mythology, a snake-like monster with many heads; and if you cut off one head, two more would grow in its place.

The IS ideology is likely to survive Baghdadi, but the strength of its sweep and power will depend on the support and finance Baghdadi’s successor will be able to command in the future. The new configuration of the powers in the region like Russia, Turkey and Syria may also affect the fortunes of the IS.