ABU Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy ‘caliph’ of the self-styled Islamic State group, has reportedly died in an American raid in Syria, near the Turkish border. President Donald Trump triumphantly announced this on Sunday, recalling the gory details of Baghdadi’s final hours. Apparently chased by American troops, the notorious Iraqi militant met his end after detonating a suicide jacket; reportedly three of his children died with him. On the face of it, this is a symbolic blow to IS, and while a host of states, mostly American allies, have hailed the operation, others remain circumspect. For example, Russia, which has a military presence in the region where Baghdadi was killed, has expressed doubt, with one Russian general saying they had no information on the operation, while a senior parliamentarian in Moscow said that “last respects have been paid to al-Baghdadi at least five times in the past”. Iran, which has been affected by IS violence and helped Iraq push back the militant group, has also reacted with caution, with one minister calling Baghdadi “your [America’s] creature”. But if the American version is taken at face value, this would spell the end of a man responsible for an orgy of violence that swept through the Middle East from the rise of IS in 2014, with the ‘caliphate’ capturing large swathes of Iraq and Syria, including the city of Mosul. Moreover, militants inspired by the IS ‘brand’ carried out acts of terrorism in different parts of the world, responding to the call of a man who expropriated Islamic symbols and led an apocalyptic cult that was only defeated through the efforts of various states.
While Baghdadi may be dead, the militancy he inspired certainly lives on, and states around the world, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia, must remain alert to new terrorism threats. It has been commonly seen that though militant groups suffer a blow after the death of charismatic leaders — Osama bin Laden in Al Qaeda’s case, Mullah Omar in that of the Afghan Taliban — their ideology lives on and often, if the infrastructure of terrorism is not uprooted, they can evolve into more ferocious outfits. For example, the Islamic State of Iraq, the forebear of IS, grew out of Al Qaeda. Therefore, the challenge now is to counter those inspired by Baghdadi, such as the IS Khorasan ‘chapter’ active in Afghanistan, before they can regroup and spread havoc.
Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019