MS Risk Blog

Who Will Replace Baghdadi?

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If Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is confirmed dead, as Russia has already indicated that it is nearly 100 percent sure that he was killed in an air strike in May, he is likely to be succeeded by one of his top two lieutenants, both of whom were Iraqi army officers under late dictator Saddam Hussein.

In late June, Russia’s defense ministry announced that Baghdadi may have been killed in an airstrike in Syria. On 23 June, Interfax news agency quoted a senior Russian parliamentarian as stating that the likelihood that he had been killed was close to 100 percent. Armed groups fighting in the region and many regional officials however are sceptical about the reports. US Army Colonel Ryan Dillom, spokesman for the international coalition that is battling IS, told a Pentagon briefing that “we don’t have any concrete evidence on whether or not he’s dead either.”

While experts on Islamist groups have indicated that they see no clear successor, they do regard Iyad al-Obaidi and Ayad al-Jumaili as the leading contenders. While Baghdadi awarded himself the title of caliph – the chief of Muslim civil and religious ruler, regarded as the successor of the Prophet Mohammad – in 2014, Obaidi or Jumaili would be unlikely to become caliph as they lack religious standing and IS has lost much of its territory. Obaidi, who is in his 50s, has been serving as war minister, while Jumaili, in his late 40s, is head of the group’s Amniya security agency. In April, Iraqi state TV reported that Jumaili had been killed, this however has not been confirmed. Both men joined the Sunni Salafist insurgency in Iraq in 2003, following the US-led invasion. Both men have been Baghdadi’s top aides since air strikes in 2016 killed his then deputy Abu Ali al-Anbari, his Chechen war minister Abu Omar al-Shishani and his Syrian chief propagandist, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. According to Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several Middle Eastern governments on IS affairs, “Jumaili recognizes Obaidi as his senior but there is no clear successor and, depending on conditions, it can be either of the two (who succeeds Baghdadi).”

Furthermore the appointment of a new IS leader would require the approval of an eight-member shoura council, an advisory body to the caliph. Its members however would be unlikely to meet for security reasons and they would make their opinion known through couriers. Six members of the council are Iraqis, one Jordanian and one Saudi, and all are veterans of the Sunni Salafist insurgency. A ninth member, the group’s Bahraini chief cleric, Turki al-Bin’ali, was killed in an air strike in Syria on 31 May. Two US intelligence officials in Washington have disclosed that they believed that IS had moved most of its leaders to al-Maydin in Syria’s Euphrates Valley, southeast of the group’s besieged capital there, Raqqa. They disclosed that amongst the operations moved to al-Maydin, which is located about 80 km (50 miles) west of the Iraqi border, were its online propaganda operation and its limited command and control of attacks in Europe and elsewhere.