Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death is not simply the end of ISIS

On Sunday 27 October, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, was confirmed dead following a US raid, the video of which was later widely shared. This has, understandably, led to much celebration within political circles (including the usual selfcongratulation from Trump), and, worryingly, some feting this as the true end of ISIS as a military and social phenomenon.

However, it has also led to discussions over tightening of national security due to justified fears of retaliatory attacks, as the ISIS propaganda rapidly constructs a story of Islamist martyrdom. Baghdadi was the founder of ISIS, leader since its inception in Syria in 2013, acting as both the major ideological figurehead, and the strategist behind ISIS’ formation of a caliphate. A private figure, Baghdadi was rarely seen in propaganda videos, but was the clear caliph of ISIS, both self-declared and universally accepted.

It is undeniable that this death will have a significant impact on ISIS and its role in the Middle East, as although a successor has already been appointed, Baghdadi was the heart of the movement. At ISIS’ height, Baghdadi ruled over roughly 8 million people, using Islamic law to ensure every aspect of their life was tightly controlled, policed by thousands of his brutal soldiers.

However, although many  are seeing this as the culmination of the fight against ISIS, this is far from true. Although Baghdadi was the leader and founder, one of the reasons ISIS was so successful is it’s decentralised structure. Regardless of Baghdadi’s involvement, rules could simply be issued to be followed within the Caliphate. Furthermore, the major danger to the West from ISIS has always been the so-called “lone wolf” attacks, most often perpetrated by those who are not officially a part of ISIS, but inspired by their vast propaganda machine, especially their use of the internet.

Some are attempting to draw parallels between what happened following Bin Laden’s death, and what will happen now, but  that is simply impossible. Bin Laden’s death forced Al-Qaeda to evolve into a more scattered organisation, but that is already ISIS’ notable characteristic, which is unlikely to change following the death of a leader who was often holed up far away from most of the real conflict.

It is difficult for anyone to predict what will happen to ISIS now that Baghdadi is gone. If you look at it practically, it would be easy to say that ISIS has been defeated: their leader is dead, they no longer control any territory, and thousands of their fighters and supporters are being held in internment camps the breadth of the region. However it would be incredibly foolish for any government to underestimate the very real power of the insidious ideology that ISIS promoted, an ideology that has attracted millions from all nations and creeds.

Although Baghdadi’s death is certainly a significant marker on the fight against terrorism, lessons from the past suggest that we need to change our foreign policy again, towards the notion of changing hearts, rather than simply targeting militant leaders.

Both are incredibly important strands, but it is imperative to remember the direct link which exists between Islamic terrorism and anti-Western sentiment stemming from constant intervention and resulting civilian deaths. Baghdadi may be dead, but ISIS still lives on in the hearts and minds of millions, and until that is rectified, there will be little peace for the Middle East or the West.

 

Image: Sgt. Ryan Young via defense.gov

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