MS Risk Blog

ISIS leader believed injured, is there ISIS after Baghdadi?

Posted on in Iraq, Syria title_rule

11 November– Last week, airstrikes conducted by the anti-ISIS coalition targeted an assembly of the group’s leaders in Mosul. Reports have emerged that the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was among those in attendance. Iraq’s defence ministry reported that Baghdadi had been injured in the strike, and that his deputy, Abu-Muslim al-Turkmani, was killed. Rumours have circulated that the ISIS “caliph” was either grievously injured or killed. ISIS has not refuted the claim; while copycat ISIS sites claim that Baghdadi was not present, there has been no word from official ISIS channels as to the whereabouts or health of Baghdadi.

Baghdadi oversaw operations that gained ISIS a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria earlier this year. In June, the leader declared the newly controlled land a Sunni Islamic caliphate, and declared himself the caliph. Baghdadi has scholarly knowledge of Islam, and claims he has ascendency from the Prophet Muhammed.

This self-declaration, particularly based on a bloodline, is in conflict with the premise of Sunni Islam. At the time of Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, many followers believed that his successor should be determined by a community of Muslims. However, a small faction believed that the successor should be a member of his family, favouring Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law. To this day, Sunnis favour consensus appointment of leaders, and Shia’s familial ascendency.

In claiming his right to become caliph based on his bloodline, Baghdadi has dismissed an important tenet of Sunni beliefs, compensating for this only by agreeing that his successor would be appointed. Further, it is unknown whether his claim to the bloodline is real; in the Arab world, it is not uncommon for documents to be falsified to suggest that a family is descended from Prophet Mohammed; it is considered a point of pride among many.

Those joining ISIS blindly follow Baghdadi despite the conflicting nature of his actions. He is perceived as charismatic and convincing, with credentials both academic and relational. Baghdadi has become a symbolic figure as much as a leader, tying together both the actions and ideologies of his followers.

In the event of Baghdadi’s death, the question arises as to what would become of ISIS. Analysts do not believe that a sufficient replacement exists among the group’s ranks. It is unknown whether Baghdadi has selected a successor from among his high-ranking leaders. Among the likely successors is Omar Shishani, a former sergeant for the Georgian army who is now a commander for ISIS. It is widely believed that Shishani is responsible for planning the military operations which led to the rapid gain of territory in Iraq over the summer.  Another prosepect is believed to be Shaker Abu Waheeb, who escaped from an Iraqi prison in Tikrit in 2012, and is now an ISIS field commander in the Anbar province.

While both candidates have worked toward seeing Baghdadi’s mission to fruition, neither have the same scholarly credentials, charisma, or bloodline as Baghdadi. It is expected that under their leadership, ISIS would be unlikely to continue with the same momentum or devotion. Further, as Baghdadi’s successor will be determined by consensus, the group could break into factions, weakening the entire entity.

It is suspected that successful targeting of ISIS leadership and controlled resources, including oil refineries, will result in the eventual dissolution of the caliphate. As ISIS weakens, so too could its hold on the territory it currently controls, allowing government forces and opposition fighters an opportunity to retake confiscated lands. In this event, fewer domestic and foreign fighters will seek to join the ranks, and existing membership will either return to their native nations or attempt to join other organisations.


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