The news from the White House confirming the death of Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in a commando operation carried out in coordination with Iraqi intelligence, Syrian Kurds and some Arab states in Idlib, Syria, on the night of 26-27 October, immediately triggered questions concerning the future of the notorious terrorist organisation. Four main issues related to Al-Baghdadi’s death will have an immediate impact on the organisation’s structure and its operations: the succession in IS leadership, the location of its headquarters, reactions to his death among the organisation’s branches and affiliates and the organisation’s membership structure.
SUCCESSION CRISIS: As the war against IS intensified during the past three years, many leading figures who could have succeeded Al-Baghdadi were killed. Among them were Haji Bakr (deputy leader in Syria, killed in Syria in 2014), Abu Abdulrahman Al-Bilawi (military operations commander, killed a week after the IS invasion of Mosul in June 2014) and Abu Ali Al-Anbari (deputy leader of IS, reportedly killed in May 2015 during a military operation carried out by Iraqi defence forces in collaboration with the international coalition). Al-Anbari has subsequently been rumoured to be alive. If so, he would top the list of candidates to succeed Al-Baghdadi. Al-Anbari, whose real name is Abdel-Rahman Mustafa Al-Qaduli, was among Al-Baghdadi’s most trusted aides and, according to US intelligence, he was effectively the IS second in command. Born in 1957 in Iraq, he was a physics teacher as well as an imam who authored many religious tracts. A long-term member of Al-Qaeda, he travelled to Afghanistan in 1998, returning to Iraq two years after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. He joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq when it was founded by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. It was rumoured that Al-Anbari took over as IS military commander after Al-Baghdadi was previously wounded.
On the other hand, if Al-Anbari is in fact dead, two other candidates stand out. The first is Abdullah Qardash. In August 2019, IS-affiliated news outlets reported that Al-Baghdadi had appointed him as his successor, using the term “caliph designate”. An Iraqi of Turkmen ethnicity, Qardash graduated from the Imam Al-Azam College of Islamic Sciences in Mosul and served as an officer in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein. As a seasoned military commander in extremist organisations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, he earned the nickname “The Destroyer.” He had been arrested and imprisoned in Camp Bucca, in Basra. He subsequently served as a religious commander in Al-Qaeda before joining IS.
The other possibility is Abu Safa Al-Rifai, currently the strongest man in IS. Mazen Nuheiri, AKA Abu Safa Al-Rifai, was born in the 1970s and served in the Iraqi army with the rank of colonel before the US occupation in 2003. One of the three founders of IS, his importance as a commander emerged following the deaths of Abu Muslim Al-Turkmani and Abdel- Rahman Al-Qaduli of the second-tier command.
Nuheiri set up the organisation’s notorious Intelligence Bureau. Reminiscent of the ubiquitous intelligence agencies of totalitarian regimes, its first order of business was to create information gathering and surveillance teams. Its main purpose was to protect IS leaders. His department also oversees covert operations, which include suicide bombings abroad. Nuheiri never appears in public. He operates behind the scenes and is rumoured not have even revealed his face to the organisation’s second-tier commanders.
ISLAMIC STATE BRANCHES: When governments and security experts were speculating over the future of Al-Qaeda after the death of Osama Bin Laden, the answer came in 2014 in the form of IS. What will become of IS’s branches after the death of Al-Baghdadi, on the one hand, and the fall of his “caliphate” state in March 2019, on the other? Will the region see the rise of a new, upgraded edition of IS? What will become of its affiliates in the region?
One can envision three possible alternatives for the organisations that had declared allegiance to Al-Baghdadi and IS. The first is disaffiliation in order to create a separate organisation, in the manner of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), which severed its organisational connection to Al-Qaeda and renounced its allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Tahrir Al-Sham has since tried to bring some other Al-Qaeda breakaway organisations and fighters as well as some other jihadist militias in Syria under its own umbrella. IS affiliates, such as its Sinai Province, Boko Haram in Nigeria and IS in Yemen, might do the same: change their name, incorporate other terrorist entries and try to expand their influence among terrorist organisations in neighbouring countries.
The second alternative is to renounce the IS affiliation and return to Al-Qaeda and redeclare allegiance to Zawahiri.
The third is to dissolve themselves, as did the Ansar Al-Sharia in Derna, Libya, in May 2017, and the Benghazi Defence Brigades, which dissolved itself in June 2018.
ISLAMIC STATE MEMBERSHIP: The succession crisis, leadership vacuum and lack of a charismatic leader will inevitably impact on the organisation’s membership base and its cohesiveness. One alternative is to relocate and continue the IS project of creating an “Islamic state” through the gradual acquisition of control over a stretch of land, but not in Syria/Iraq. The most likely locations for such a project would be Khorasan, Libya, Yemen or West Africa where IS affiliates are still active. This alternative is contingent on the ability of IS leaders to physically relocate to such locations and assume control of the organisation’s affairs in those different environments. On the one hand, they would encounter the difficulty of infiltrating into those areas at a time when security precautions are tighter than ever. On the other, they would encounter the lack of a social incubator since IS has little influence and in most areas in which it operates.
The second alternative is fragmentation into small disparate groups with no organic connection between them but that would carry out terrorist attacks wherever they happened to base themselves. This scenario is likely in view of the disintegration that has already occurred and the fact that IS members or cells are now underground and concealing themselves among civilian populations. In other words, the organisation could re-emerge, but not as a cohesive entity but as assorted cells assuming different names. Most likely, its members would resort to rudimentary attacks, suicide bombings or planting IEDs.
HEADQUARTERS AND CENTRALISATION: With the confirmation of Al-Baghdadi’s death, IS will now face the question, at least theoretically, as to where to base itself. When the group first emerged, it established its capital in Mosul. Following its defeat there in mid-2017, the organisation shifted its headquarters to Syria, moving from Deir Al-Zor to Raqqa and then to Baghouz until its fall in March 2019. The question of where to set up headquarters now could trigger a dispute among different factions or subsidiaries, each keen to have the caliphate capital in their area because of the clout and prestige this would give them over other branches. Perhaps the foremost rivals in this regard are Khorasan Province in Afghanistan and the West African Province (formerly Boko Haram) in Nigeria. Other contenders might be Libya, the Caucasus or Yemen. Conceivably, competition over the headquarters question could escalate into outright internal conflict, especially in the event of the rise of a new leadership that is not well liked by the various IS branches and affiliates, or that is regarded as weak, as was the case with Ayman Al-Zawahiri after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
On the whole, the factors of disintegration and organisational weakness outweigh the factors of cohesion and resurgence following the death of Al-Baghdadi. The candidates for succession are not of his calibre as an organisational and motivational leader and, caught between a power vacuum and other pressures, infighting between IS leaders and branches is likely to grow more intense.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.