Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became the leader of the Islamic State in 2010 with the death of then-leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. At that time after the deaths and arrests of much of their leadership, the group was struggling. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi attempted to rebuild their networks and raise funds ultimately creating an Islamic Caliphate and changing their name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) (Hashim, 2014). On June 29, 2014 the group began referring to itself as the Islamic State (IS) and al Baghdadi became the Caliph (Hashim, 2014). This is the version of IS that most people know. The group that was very deadly. On Saturday October 26, 2019 members of a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) Delta Team carried out a raid in Syria that allegedly killed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. But will his death make a difference for the operational capabilities of the Islamic State?
Leadership decapitation is not a new concept. There have been numerous group leaders that have been taken out by raids or strikes. The results can vary. For example, when the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE – Tamil Tigers) Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed in Sri Lanka in 2009, it ended the longstanding terrorism campaign by the group shortly after his death. In 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed, it dealt Al Qaeda with a significant emotional blow. His successor Ayman al Zawahiri has not been as charismatic or vocal and the group has been somewhat stagnant. Just because there is a decapitation strike does not mean the group will collapse. In 2010 when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s predecessor was killed, the group was devastated, but through al Baghdadi’s command they flourished and grew.
Research on decapitation strikes has shown that the size of the group, the group’s age, and the organizational type of the group are important in determining the effectiveness of such a strike (Jordan, 2009). The larger the group, and the longer it has sustained, the less likely it is that they will cease operations because of a decapitation strike (Jordan, 2009). Also, religious groups are highly resistant to decapitation strikes (Jordan, 2009).
Although the Islamic State has recently been targeted and quieted, the latest actions in Syria may leave the door open for their resurgence. Turkey’s military strikes against the Kurds in Syria may have a negative impact on the fight against the Islamic State. Another factor to consider is the Islamic State’s use of social media and magazines they have published. The Islamic State was prolific in their use of social media, and had several magazines, such as Rumiyah and Dabiq, which were published in numerous languages including English. This allowed supporters, who were not able to battle on the front lines, to follow and help sustain the group. There have been numerous attacks all over the world that have been ISIS-inspired but not necessarily directed by the group. It is easy to kill a person, but much harder to kill an idea or ideology.