Death of a terrorist: On Baghdadi's killing

Baghdadi is dead, but the conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State still remain

October 29, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder-leader of the Islamic State, is a major setback to the dreaded terrorist organisation. Baghdadi, who rose to international notoriety in July 2014 when he appeared in the pulpit of Mosul’s grand al-Nuri mosque as the leader of the new ‘Caliphate’ announced by his group, “died like a dog”, according to U.S. President Donald Trump. He was hiding in a village in Idlib, the Syrian province controlled by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and pro-Turkey rebels, when U.S. Special Forces launched an operation on Saturday. Mr. Trump says Baghdadi blew himself up in a tunnel while he was surrounded, killing himself and three of his sons. At the height of its power in 2014, the Caliphate established by Baghdadi controlled territories as large as Great Britain straddling the Iraqi-Syria border. Spread from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria to Mosul in northern Iraq and with Raqqa its de facto capital, the Caliphate drew in radicalised young Muslims world-wide into its fold, fought the Syrian and Iraqi national armies as well as rebel groups in Syria, and unleashed violence against anyone who disagreed with its version of Islam and against minority groups in Islam and non-Muslims. Baghdadi presided over the rise of his group as a death cult, bringing back memories of medieval religious conflicts.

But the Caliphate was a short-lived phenomenon. The cities the IS once ruled were liberated. Its jihadists are on the run. Now that Baghdadi is also gone, the IS is at the weakest point of its short history. But it does not mean the group is defeated. The IS, like its peers in global jihadism such as al-Qaeda, is not a completely leader-dependent organisation. It is fundamentally an insurgency comprising ideologically linked autonomous cells and loyal to one leadership. So Baghdadi’s death, while a blow to the organisation and its propaganda, does not mean that IS operations are over. Second, the geopolitical conditions that led to the IS’s creation have not changed much. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by the U.S in 2006, it was a setback to the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the organisation that he led. After his death, Sunnis in northern Iraq rose against the AQI, which, along with a surge in U.S. troops in Iraq, pushed the group to retreat from the cities and towns. But it did not finish the AQI off. When Syria began plunging into chaos in the early days of the civil war in 2011, the AQI, under Baghdadi’s leadership, morphed into a bigger, more powerful terrorist machinery — the IS. What happened to the IS now is similar to what happened to the AQI then. With the IS’s double loss, the focus should now be on stabilising Iraq and Syria and ending the conditions that led to the rise of the AQI and the IS. Otherwise, Baghdadi’s death would not mean much for the global fight against terrorism.

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