Breaking the Hornet's Nest: The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Ibrahim al-Samarra'i, known by his nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has experienced multiple deaths as leader of Islamic State. However, in recent days, Russian and Iranian sources and the atmosphere emerging from Islamic State's political camp seem to indicate that the self-declared caliph, Baghdadi who declared a caliphate in June, 2014 is dead. 

Abu Baraa al-Mawseli, one of Islamic State’s top leaders and the assistant ruler of Tal Afar town, west of Mosul, delivered a sermon during the Friday prayer admitting defeat in Mosul. Alongside this, Alsumaria News described how Abu Qutaiba, another senior leader close to Baghdadi broke down when he mentioned him during a speech the source suggesting that “Qutaiba mumbled a few words afterwards which suggested Baghdadi’s death,” the source said. The consequences of this slip were gruesome with The Baghdad Post reporting that Qutaiba was burned alive days later by other IS members to deter defections and a power struggle within the ranks of the insurgents. 

The final assault on Mosul's Old City, the continued campaign to recapture Raqqa and the climax of a three year campaign to dislodge Islamic State's (IS) influence and territorial gains in large parts of Iraq and Syria, at first glance, appear to symbolise the end of their insurgency. This oversimplification of affairs in Iraq and Syria will return to haunt international policymakers and will fail to address the root causes of terrorism and insurgency tearing the Middle East asunder or the looming threats which will emerge from IS's setback. 

Understanding this requires understanding how IS came to gain such military strength when it seized territory the size of the United Kingdom between 2013 - 2015. Like the ultra-conservative and literalist leaders of Al-Qa'ida, Ayman Zawahiri and former leader Osama Bin Laden, Al-Samarra’i came from an highly educated background. He undertook Islamic studies and history at the university of Baghdad where alongside his dedication to his studies he became a teacher, an intellectual, and a preacher at mosques across Baghdad. He obtained a doctorate at Islamic University in Baghdad and became known to many as Dr. Ibrahim.

All these factors painted al-Samarra'i as a deeply conservative individual who grew up during the years of savage dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, the Iraq-Iran War (1980 –1988), the Second Gulf War (1990-1991) and American meddling in Iraq dating back as far back at the 1960s. The Second Gulf War destroyed critical infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, bridges and water treatment plants and Saddam Hussein’s regime was placed under sanctions by the United States which led to starvation of thousands of Iraqi civilians under President Clinton. Al-Samarra'i's deep seated hatred of the West - not uncommon in Iraq during the 1990s - may have begun during this period of instability in Iraq as America propped up Saddam’s Baathist dictatorship despite their knowledge of his use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and Kurds. What mattered to the U.S was that even if Saddam was a volatile agent, he was an effective deterrent to the Soviet Union's influence, a check against 1979 Iranian revolution, and he secured vital Western oil interests during the twilight years of the Cold War.

In 1999, following his release from prison in Jordan, the former leader of IS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan where he and al-Samarra'i began to live and work together, operating as close partners in Kabul and Herat. Al-Samarra'i had close relations with the Taliban during his years in Afghanistan, as did Zarqawi. The two Arabs shared the Taliban's sectarian hatred of Iranians and Shiites. Clearly, al-Samarra'i did not emerge from the shadow following Zarqawi's death in June, 2006. His association with the creation of IS's violent pan-Islamic nationalism and neo-Wahabbist doctrine started in Afghanistan where Zarqawi and Baghdadi would establish a frosty relationship with Bin Laden and Zawahiri. This strained relationship was circumvented by short-term necessities as Bin Laden's Al-Qa'ida funded their operations in Afghanistan, but later exploded into direct conflict between Al-Qa'ida and IS in Syria's civil war. 

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, al-Samarra'i and Zaqarwi used Iraq's insurgency against U.S occupation forces to their advantage. In 2005, he was captured by American forces and spent the next four years a prisoner in the Bucca Camp, a U.S detention centre in southern Iraq. Bucca Camp became an incubator for jihād and a meeting of interests where 'Saddam Hussein’s Baathist secularists and Islamist fundamentalists were thrust together and set the stage for something perhaps worse: collaboration.' 

Former leader of Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (image screenshot via Youtube)

Former leader of Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (image screenshot via Youtube)

Incarceration and the destruction of many parts of Iraq by coalition combat troops helped al-Samarra'i forge a deadly alliance between neo-Wahabbists, neo-Salafist extremists, alienated Sunni tribes, and the deposed president's demobilised military in Iraq. Following the renaming of the MSC as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, al-Samarra'i who rebranded himself as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi eventually became the supervisor of the ISI’s sharia committee and a key member of the group’s senior consultative council. 

The difference between Zarqawi and Baghadi became clear during the Iraqi insurgency against the occupation. Zarqawi was an effective insurgent and charismatic but a poor strategist and could not realise his brutal ideological vision for Iraq and Syria. His murderous approach alienated crucial Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi tribal networks in Anbar and northern Iraq who formed the backbone of Al-Qa'ida's ability to conduct operations in Iraq. Baghdadi and Zarqawi both ruled through fear, but the latter did not incorporate the delicate political and economic interests of local insurgents, tribes and clans into his plan. The violence against Shiites also drew criticism from allies abroad including Bin Laden and Zawahiri who were troubled by the autonomy of Zarqawi's network: 

"We must repeat what we mentioned previously, that the majority of Muslims don't comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it. For that reason, many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shi'a. The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques....My opinion is that this matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue."

Baghadi's disdain for Iraq's Shiite-dominated government was undisputed but he understood, as did Saddam, the fundamental importance of maintaining a system of terror and enticement, dependence and conformity, and maintaining a strong network of patrons and clients. These pillars formed the backbone of Saddam's regime in its final decade in power following Washington's obliteration of Iraq's socio-economic fabric and infrastructure during the Second Gulf War and the international sanctions imposed on Saddam's regime during the 1990s.  As an Iraqi and coming from a tribe with strong links to the former Ba'athist regime, Baghdadi understanding of these networks were superior to that of Zarqawi who had a reputation as a ultra-violent, uncompromising foreign fighter who came from a background of poor education and petty crime. 

Zarqawi gradually gave the U.S military the chance to crush ISI and its horrific sub-cell Jama'at al-Tahwid in 2007. It also led to Zarqawi's death, as senior American sources said that key assistance in hunting down and killing Zarqawi came from dissident Iraqi Sunnis who were growing wary about the consequences of tolerating his indiscriminate violence. Zarqawi's coalition of fighters were too extreme, even for Sunni nationalists who hated the U.S occupation as it isolated them from any potential political process in Iraq. Following his death, the U.S military under General Petraeus drove ISI and Al-Qa'ida underground during the Surge and its leadership was decimated by U.S Special Forces under the jurisdiction of the Obama administration. This reached its climax on April 18th, 2010 when the new leaders of ISI, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi, were eliminated. This power vacuum allowed al-Baghdadi to increase his influence as the Baathists and jihādist groups regrouped.  

Baghdadi's IS learnt its lessons from the Taliban and the eventual strategic failing of Zarqawi and Al-Qa'ida during General Petraeus' Surge. IS has taken Zarqawi's legacy of violence to a new level while it carefully folded itself into local and regional conflicts and exploited Syria and Iraq's war economies. Those who disagreed with Baghdadi's doctrine remained targets including Shiites, Alawites, Yezidis and non-Islamist Sunnis, however IS's coalition were careful not to assassinate or target Sunni tribal leaders which, under long existing tribal codes, would invite retribution, revenge attacks and lose IS crucial political allies on the ground. 

However in the long-term, politically, economically and militarily, IS could not survive as a self-declared state, even with the support of many (but not all) the Sunni tribes in Iraq. It outlived its use as a proxy to regional powers and systematically turned many local, regional and global powers against it while being opposed by ideological affiliates such as Al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other jihādist groups across the Greater Middle East.  Pro-IS cells across the world have had mixed successes, tied in-part to local, political and cultural factors at play where they operate. Equally, it is disputed how much influence Baghdadi actually held in IS's campaign, as he lacked considerable military experience which lay with other IS leaders within the Shura Council and the Military Commission dominated by former military officers and intelligence officials from Saddam's former regime.

Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, former leader of Islamic State

Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, former leader of Islamic State

Dead or alive, removing Baghdadi from the picture will not end IS's insurgencies in these parts of world including Nigeria, Egypt's Sinai, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Libya, Chechnya, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond nor will it quell the European and American cells singling out Western targets and cities to conduct terrorist attacks.  However, the impact of Baghadi as a symbol for IS's revolt, like Zarqawi, cannot be underestimated. IS caught the imagination of the international community in 2014 and inspired thousands of men, women and children to join their twisted war. They conducted multiple atrocities, crimes against humanity, produced graphic snuff-videos of torture and bloodshed, created a sub-state, took the concept of digital jihād to a new level of reach and influence, and carried out spectacular terrorist attacks across the world in the name of global jihād. The legacy of Baghdadism and Zarqawism will endure and will inspire more young men and women to conduct terrorists attacks and atrocities across the world. 

Though President Trump will claim victory, the tactical defeat of IS is hardly the Trump administration's success and the approach of the previous administration of President Obama has only worsened the maelstrom in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The U.S occupation catalysed the rise of jihādism in the Third Gulf War and today the international coalition, spearheaded by U.S airpower, is repeating the procedure in the Fourth Gulf War with its bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. The devastating result has scattered fighters across the region in search of new areas of disorder and poor governance to seek haven and exploit local grievances including the Sahel region, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. 

Ironically, President Trump's success of "bombing the s**t out of IS" has helped to radicalise the population further. In April and May, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the 'US-led coalition killed at least 225 civilians in past month, surpassing 146 civilian deaths caused by Syrian government strikes.' The brutality of U.S airpower has gained greater scrutiny overtime and proved to be as lethal as Russian airstrikes since Vladimir Putin's came to aid of President Asad in 2015. Deadly drone and airstrikes in ManbijIbn al-Khatab's mosque, a school in Raqqa, and Jadida neighbourhood of West Mosul, four incidents alone, killed an estimated three hundred people. The New York Times and AirWars have alleged that U.S airstrikes have resulted in the deaths of a minimum of 4,118 Syrian civilians since 2014 while Russia's bombing campaign have believed to have killed an estimated 4,557 Syrian men, women and children. The numbers demonstrate that international interventions - while different in their objectives - have yielded similar costs. 

The perspective of the Israeli military and intelligence  - Washington's closest ally and who are well-rehearsed in the turbulent nature of Middle Eastern politics and war - should be noted by Western commentators who are confident that IS will meet its end in the streets of Mosul and Raqqa. The Trump administration, and particularly its eccentric leader, does not understand the nuances of the Middle Eastern Wars, nor the historical factors which drive them. As an Israeli intelligence officer stated in an interview with Bryan Bender for Politico Magazine:

 “The bombing sometimes causes more damage than it helps, you are also perceived as one of those guys blowing things up. Take Mosul, for example. Mosul is a million-citizen city and the largest estimate said [there were] 8,000 militants. You can’t control a million-people city with 8,000 people if you don’t have some support within the population. The population is relatively favorable to the Islamic cause—the tribes and so forth and when you bring a Western logic into an eastern Arab mentality it doesn’t usually work out. A Western mind doesn’t really understand the nuances of Arab tribal society anywhere in the Middle East.”

 Of-course, the U.S and Russian militaries are not the sole forces driving instability and radicalisation. As Christopher Phillips astutely points out IS is the offspring of many parents. "Through a mixture of bungling, short-termism, indirect and intentional policies, the West, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and the Iraqi government) all played a role. "Assad, Russia and their allies have also played a role in IS's rise"  including Iran's support for "Shiite militia established by Qassem Suleimani, Commander of the Iranian Quds Force, to resist the U.S occupation of Iraq in the 2000s" many of which were driven by sectarian politics which alienated Iraqi Sunnis. 

Even without a figurehead, IS remains deadly in Iraq and Syria and whether or not 2014 represented the organisation's peak, their ideological threat remains potent. "IS is much like a cancer," an intelligence officer at the IDF's Northern Command said. “It is easy to cut the tumors off. But how do you prevent the small cancer cells from expanding? I think the caliphate is already thinking, ‘OK, what are we going to do next?’" 

Kata'ib Hezbollah ( Arabic : كتائب حزب الله‎‎, Brigades of the Party of God fighting in Iraq, Photographer: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Image  via  BloomBerg) 

Kata'ib Hezbollah (Arabic: كتائب حزب الله‎‎, Brigades of the Party of God fighting in Iraq, Photographer: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Image via BloomBerg) 

Outside the conflict with IS, it is clear the organisation are not the only threat, despite their brutality and despite all the international attention they have received. Baghdadi's soldiers have served to cloak other dangers to regional and global stability. As an Israeli soldier commented, “There is no lack of Islamic militant groups here, you  just haven’t heard of them yet.” In Syria, Al-Qa'ida, 'has pursued an audacious line of messaging that seeks to portray the group in Syria as a responsible actor that follows a “middle path” between acquiescence and extremism' where IS as supposed to Al-Qa'ida, the latter of whom are equally responsible for horrifying attacks across the world, are the ones Syrians should fear. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Nur al-Din al-Zenki and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (a branch of Al-Qa'ida) have all successfully hijacked the Syrian revolution, one now dominated, at-least militarily, by extremists after Al-Qa'ida, IS, the Gulf States, Turkey, Asad and the Russians contributed to the destruction of a middle-ground in Syria. 

The fall-out of the revolutions has sparked the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War and Western states and Russia have both directly intervened in or covertly fuelled the turmoil in several countries with the support of a plethora of state and non-state actors. Old borders have deteriorated, new sub-states and governments have emerged and collapsed, unprecedented demographic changes are reshaping the social fabric of the region and rebellion and insurgency has been met with brutal counter-revolution all of which have catalysed "one of the most significant socio-religious movements in politics today": militant Salafi jihādism.

 Without a common enemy in IS, other conflicts will gain momentum in the war-zones across the Middle East which are now arenas for complex rivalries. The Israelis and Saudi Arabians have found common ground diplomatically in their long-standing contest with the Iranian regime and Turkey, once a shield for NATO's European states in the Middle East, has become disenchanted with its Western allies with their approach to the crises in Iraq, Syria and their military alliance with Kurdish groups such as the YPG and PKK. The result has pushed Turkey into renewed conflict with the Kurds and forced them to pursue closer ties with Russia and Iran. 

Relations between Middle Eastern states are now deeply unstable and unpredictable and the arms race in the region has gained considerable momentum since the Arab Revolutions largely descended into chaos. "The arms sales in the region have reached $215 billion and this is no small sum,” said Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman grimly and international arms deals are clearly worsening the issue, even for close allies such as Israel. Hizbollah's intervention in Iraq and Syria, costly in manpower, has still helped to strengthen the military wing of the Lebanese political party. The threat of Shiite extremism and terrorism, more organised and systematic, has been undercut by the dominant narrative of Sunni-led violence promoted by IS propaganda and fuelled by international media's attention to it. 

In December, 2016, a senior military official in Israel raised his concerns on Hizbullah using U.S - made armored personnel carriers in Syria supplied by the Lebanese army. With weapons  disappearing on the black market and the U.S military admitting that it leaked $1 billion worth of armaments and weapons in Iraq and Kuwait, reclaiming lost hardware will be a monumental challenge including preventing the military equipment falling into the hands of those who are (and will) committing atrocities. IS's arsenal was designed or manufactured in more than 25 countries who poured armaments into the country while Amnesty International detailed report illustrates how the U.S, Europe, Russia and Iran arms industries have been pouring military support into the coffers of the Popular Mobilisation Units and Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq. Many of these paramilitaries have conducted ethnic cleansing, kidnappings, torture, conducted human rights violations with impunity and committed war crimes. Other weapons have found their way into the hands of IS.

Crises in Qatar and Yemen continue to develop with rapid seriousness and Egypt remains in the grip of military rule while Hamas-controlled Gaza remains sandwiched between Israeli and Egyptian forces by air, land and sea, a siege which could render Gaza uninhabitable by 2020. These are all geo-political issues which could plunge the region into further violence and turmoil, violence which dwarfs the chaos unleashed by Islamic State. 

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Melania Trump and President Trump during the opening of an anti-extremist center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Press Agency    

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Melania Trump and President Trump during the opening of an anti-extremist center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Press Agency 


Baghdadi's apparent demise is a pin-drop and achieves little in solving a multi-dimensional crisis,  a series of Middle Eastern wars and revolutions where "everything is connected" across the region. The last century of Middle Eastern politics and history, not just current affairs, has continued to demonstrate this simple fact. The bungling of the Middle Eastern wars and Arab Revolutions, including its war with Islamic State, will leave international policymakers with a deep sense of regret and unprepared for what happens to the Greater Middle East. What happens next is best summarised by an Israeli intelligence official: "The worst is yet to come." 

Matthew C.K Williams