Photo illustration by John Lyman
World News /02 Nov 2019
11.02.19

Can Leadership Decapitation Accelerate ISIS’ Demise? Baghdadi’s Killing and More

News about his death only to be followed by his resurfacing became the Internet’s favorite viral moments over the last five years. However, Oct 27 put a rest to this recurring of events once and for all – hopefully valid this time – as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader at the helm of ISIS was killed by U.S. Special Forces after hours of a grueling covert operation.

A joyous President Donald Trump took to the podium announcing, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “died like a dog, he died like a coward,” at a press conference in the White House. And rightly so, after all, he authorized the elimination of one of the world’s most dreaded terrorists that will certainly etch his presidency into the pages of history.

However, the biggest question to ponder at this time is, if the decapitation of the ISIS leader is a final nail in the outfit’s coffin or will Baghdadi’s symbolic death rekindle flares in the organization? Symbolic because, once seen as a powerful organization, earlier this year ISIS already lost the last bit of its captured territory of the 2014 self-proclaimed caliphate, along northeastern Syria. Thus, on the ground ISIS was conspicuously toothless, however, that might not translate to its being powerless. This was reflected in U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement when he said, “…there is still work left to do to ensure ISIS’s enduring defeat.”

The immediate question girdling Baghdadi’s killing is if it will lead to the ebbing of ISIS, which, in fact, is difficult to determine. If experts are to be believed, the effect of leadership decapitation is time-dependent ie the sooner the leader is eliminated the greater are the chances for the organization to die. Bryan C. Price, in a piece for the journal International Security, writes, “A terrorist group whose leader has been decapitated in the first year of the group’s existence is more than eight times as likely to end as a nondecapitated group. The effects diminish by 50 percent after ten years, and after twenty years, leadership decapitation may have no effect on the group’s mortality rate.”

However, Bryan in the same piece also concluded since terrorist outfits are ‘value-based’ organizations so, in the long run, they are susceptible to leadership decapitation. “Violent groups are inherently more cohesive than nonviolent groups, a feature that makes leadership succession more difficult. They are also often led by charismatic leaders who are hard to replace.” He added, “The clandestine nature of terrorist groups, increases dependency on their leaders, complicates leadership succession, and negatively affects organizational learning and decision-making.”

With the elimination of Baghdadi, the violent turn of events is imminently foreseen. Even though Trump proudly boasted vanquishing ISIS yet the terrorist group is rebooting its strength, essentially the financial channels, including an escalation in guerrilla attacks, reported the New York Times.

This very much resonates with Bryan’s warning, where he talks about the immediate violent aftermath of leadership elimination. Drawing semblance of the immediate short-term effect to that of chemotherapy he writes, “Leadership decapitation may have negative short-term consequences, but it significantly increases terrorist group mortality rates.”

Besides, with Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the fear of this organization’s resurgence further looms large. Military officials had earlier warned that if the pressure is not mounted there are chances that the outfit might rebound within a period of six to twelve months. A similar perception was echoed in the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ report wherein he categorically mentioned the existence of 14,000 and 18,000 active, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters particularly operating in the remote rural areas and the deserts of Anbar and Nineveh provinces, and the mountains that straddle Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Diyala.

Though the death of Baghdadi has made ISIS leaderless and possibly devoid of any direction yet tens of thousands of its fighters intoxicated with morbid ideologies continue to be alive. If reports are to be believed fighters, sympathizers, and ideologues of ISIS remain scattered in Europe and the group has financial consolidations in Libya and central Africa. Furthermore, the recent military offensive launched by Turkey in the bordering Kurdish towns of Syria led to the escape of over 100 ISIS prisoners, as the Kurdish military forces guarding these prisoners had to abandon the detention centers to fight back the Turkish military. It’s feared these escaped militants might trigger national security concerns and according to experts, protecting the border now becomes pertinent as there are chances of attacks, reported ABC news.

Pointing at its previous modus operandi of radicalizing younger lots using social media, Anju Gupta a former top Indian cop terms Baghdadi’s killing as a mere transient setback for ISIS and that it will do little to mitigate the threats posed by the terrorist outfit. Cautioning of ‘signature’ attacks by the organization including numerous possible assaults of a smaller magnitude to exhibit its strength, Gupta implies being leaderless now might be the possible time for the organization’s numerous sleeper cells to pay tributes to their dead chief.

With elections lurking around the corner, the killing of Baghdadi certainly comes as a much needed political victory for the U.S. and the Trump administration. However, it remains to be seen if his elimination brings the demise of ISIS, which led a brutal rule over almost eight million people, inflicting horrendous crimes like rape, kidnapping, extortion, and murder.

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