The killing of the leader and founder of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, raised several questions regarding the future of the organization and its members. A research by Colin P. Clarke at RAND traced the closest scenarios in this regard.
Although there may be many consequences for Daesh as an organization over the next several months, according to the report, there is one potential international consequence worth considering.
The death of Baghdadi will likely weaken the organization’s command and control network and cause some of its affiliates to either assert more independence or retreat into the localized conflicts they were previously engaged in.
Baghdadi was radicalized after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and his religious training set him apart right away as an individual who would have an important future in the jihadi movement. Baghdadi was captured by U.S. forces and transferred to the famous “jihadi university” of Camp Bucca, the U.S. detention center in Iraq that housed some of the Iraq War’s most radical captives, in February 2004.
In the camp, as the journalist Joby Warrick has observed, the young Baghdadi learned quickly that his religious and academic training gave him some degree of credibility, and he was able to interpret and translate sharia to make it more accessible to aspiring jihadis. In fact, he was considered so bookish that the Americans released him from prison in December 2004.
While in prison, though, the medical team at Camp Bucca took cheek swabs and collected his DNA, a move that would prove particularly useful after the raid that killed him over the weekend.
What happens next to Daesh could closely mirror the trajectory of al Qaeda following the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. After his death, bin Laden’s longtime 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.
As with the case of al Qaeda, such splits can lead affiliates in far-flung locales to pursue more parochial interests and rebuff advice from central leadership holed up thousands of miles away. During the height of the Iraq War in the mid-2000s, for example, al Qaeda in Iraq chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi famously shrugged off the admonition from Zawahiri to tone down his group’s sectarianism. And thus the Islamic State was born from the split between al Qaeda in Iraq and its parent organization, the report further said.
Baghdadi’s death could also lead to an uptick in Islamic State-inspired attacks in the near term, primarily as a reaction to the news that he was killed by U.S. special operations forces. But over the longer term, the death of Baghdadi could have an attenuating effect on the group’s inspirational pull, given the way that Baghdadi specifically resonated with legions of supporters throughout the West and the broader Islamic world.
Previous announcements of his death never had this effect, but mostly because these rumors were squashed relatively soon after they spread.