With ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed one day and the group’s official spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir the next, there’s a giant hole in the pseudo-Caliphate structure of the so-called Islamic State. The group must now, by its strict religious tenets, find a new (supposed) descendant of the Prophet Muhammed to fill the role of Caliph.
But the deaths of those two are equally consequential for al-Qaeda, the bitter rival of ISIS for leadership of global jihad.
Al-Qaeda has spent the last six years branding the Caliphate as illegitimate, too extreme, and ultimately harmful. When ISIS declared the establishment of its so-called Caliphate spanning territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014, al-Qaeda and its affiliates unanimously rejected it. To this day, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s speeches rarely come without some critique of the “epidemic” put forth by ISIS.
Oddly, Baghdadi was killed in Idlib, a haven of al-Qaeda-linked fighters and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Syrian Islamist faction led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, a former al-Qaeda comrade who had become one of Baghdadi's most bitter foes. There has been some speculation Baghdadi was not just hiding out but trying to recruit from the ranks of his enemies.
Neither al-Qaeda Central nor its affiliates have commented on Baghdadi’s death as yet, but within hours after the news broke, al-Qaeda ideologues and supporters already were celebrating the event and discussing what it will mean for the future of jihad. In chat groups online, al-Qaeda supporters voiced resentment after years of bitter strife with the group, and the scale of these responses illustrates just how much of a big deal and opportunity they see with Baghdadi’s death.
“Based on his orders, thousands of the mujahideen were killed,” one post read.
“How thrilled were they every time leaders from al-Qaeda were martyred?” read another.
Some wished Baghdadi the ultimate condemnation: “May Allah send him to Hell.”
Messages by others, however, particularly al-Qaeda-linked ideologues, balanced expressions of justice for the jihadi movement with restraint, making sure not to celebrate excessively the result of an operation by the United States.
The tactful enthusiasm is calculated. Many ISIS fighters, much of its military infrastructure, many media officials, and supporters were pulled from al-Qaeda. Now, with ISIS’ “Caliph” dead and that Caliphate itself destroyed, al-Qaeda has been given its biggest opportunity yet to bring many of them back under its tent.
Perhaps the most profound instance of this outreach was a lengthy essay by “Adel Amin,” the pen name of a prominent ideologue linked to the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia and most powerful affiliate. The message, disseminated widely across al-Qaeda-supporting channels and chat groups (many of which are also frequented by pro-ISIS users), demanded that ISIS supporters “return to the road of righteousness” after the Islamic State, in all of its excessive aggression and delusions of destiny, has proven itself a failure. Amin wrote:
The situation here is not one in which to gloat. It is a situation for reminding and calling on those who remained in the ranks of al-Baghdadi, to reconsider… Indeed, we witnessed its back being broken, its leaders getting killed, and its banner falling, and we hope that we can witness whoever remains from its soldiers returning to righteousness.
Statements by other ideologues and supporters voiced the same points. A statement by Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a former religious official in the now-defunct al-Qaeda-linked Brigades of Abdullah Azzam in Lebanon, urged: “Now [Baghdadi] is dead and there is not one from the Ummah grieving over him or giving condolences... Therefore, those who were deceived by him should reconsider before it is too late!”
These messages echo the same calls heard from Zawahiri and al-Qaeda affiliates over the years calling on ISIS fighters to “repent” and leave the group.
Yet despite these new circumstances, ISIS supporters will not easily be moved.
Since the summer of 2016, the group’s followers have seen the loss of the major cities Mosul in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria as well as the death of revered ISIS figures like Omar Shishani, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, and others. With the latest setbacks to its leadership, ISIS-linked accounts online already have poured out calls to stay steadfast and have even used Baghdadi’s death as a rallying point to carry out new attacks.
Reinforcing this undeterred support is an ISIS military and media machine that has shown no sign of stopping in the last two days. While ISIS has not yet officially acknowledged the death of Baghdadi, it has continued reporting on day-to-day military activity across Iraq, Syria, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Furthermore, while al-Qaeda affiliates like the Shabaab serve as powerful representatives of the organization, al-Qaeda Central is weaker than it has ever been. These days, al-Qaeda Central’s role is largely symbolic, limited to leadership messages and other content while steering the big-picture ethos of the organization. Its attempts to bolster its image, already heavily weighed down by a less-than-charismatic leader in Zawahiri, were upended upon the death of Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama, whom al-Qaeda likely was grooming for an eventual leadership position.
These variables considered, al-Qaeda may not be the appealing alternative for jihadists that its supporters want it to seem. So, while some fighters might very well join the ranks of al-Qaeda affiliates in their region, we shouldn't expect to see any drastic migration from ISIS’ ranks into its rival’s.
Despite any notions of good-riddance that al-Qaeda and its supporters attach to Baghdadi’s death, and for whatever number of defectors it may win over as a result of Baghdadi’s demise, ISIS is not going anywhere. The barriers between these terrorist organizations have only hardened over the years, fueling deadly clashes and jihadi PR wars. Baghdadi was not the sole barrier keeping ISIS members from joining al-Qaeda, and his death is unlikely to diminish existing disputes.