The Real Power Behind The Islamic State


ISIS militants

Reports emerged Tuesday that the notorious leader of jihadist group the Islamic State (IS), sometimes referred to as ISIS or ISIL, has been recovering from serious injuries inflicted during a U.S.-coalition led airstrike for more than a month.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has reportedly been out of action since an attack on March 18 left him badly wounded. Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi government advisor, told Sky News that the self-appointed caliph’s deputy, Abu Alaa al-Afri, assumed command of operations.

Al-Afri is described by Hashimi as charismatic, well known among IS members, and potentially more important to the organization than Baghdadi.

In the past, the U.S. has countered radical non-state actors like al-Qaeda by targeting influential leaders with assassinations. With IS though, a more resilient structure appears to be in place, seamlessly filling any gaps in command that might occur from targeted strikes on the leadership.

IS has faced military setbacks in recent weeks but Baghdadi’s incapacity – his main organs are working but he is unable to move says Hashimi – has not led the group spiraling toward ruin. But other information gathered on Baghdadi also brings up questions over his importance to IS as more than just a figurehead.

Following the invasion of Iraq, Baghdadi spent some time in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca with many other future IS members. Numerous accounts from both prisoners and guards who served there expressed surprise that Baghdadi rose to such a position of such power.

According to a groundbreaking report in Der Spiegel from earlier this week, Baghdadi was originally selected as caliph, a term for the ruler of the Muslim community, by a group of former Iraqi Baathist intelligence officers to give IS a religious face.

Der Spiegel writes: “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be the officially named leader, but it remains unclear how much power he holds. In any case, when an emissary of al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri contacted the Islamic State, it was Haji Bakr and other intelligence officers, and not al-Baghdadi, whom he approached.”

Another report from October 2014 that ran in the Daily Beast cast doubt over the significance of one of IS’ most prominent and recognizable foreign commanders, a Chechen named Abu Omar al-Shishani. From the Daily Beast:

Stories and rumors circulate—whispers of his massive villa, his fiefdom and private harem, his 40 personal guards, his armored cavalcade of SUVs, and now his stunning and fierce Chechen warrior wife. For these young men, their Pankisi native son has already become part Josef Stalin (another native son of Georgia) and part rock star of the media-savvy Islamic caliphate. But according to his father, Abu Omar al-Shishani is a mirage: It’s his older brother who is running the ISIS show.

IS’ predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), lost multiple leaders to U.S. airstrikes and the group appears to be buttressing its leadership by putting forward charismatic figureheads while the masterminds continue to operate in the shadows.

“Lots of governments are run by people who aren’t operationally savvy,” William McCants, a Middle East scholar at the Brookings Institute and author of the forthcoming The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, told ThinkProgress by email. “I don’t know if I’d put Baghdadi in that category just yet–he’s good at playing factions against one another–but it wouldn’t be unusual in world politics.”

Nonetheless, McCants said he doesn’t think Baghdadi would be easily replaceable. “ISIS’s Shura council voted for Baghdadi for several reasons: his religious credentials, his supposed descent from Muhammad, and his tribal connections.”

“The injury or assassination of a country’s premier or president does not cause the country to fall apart or stop carrying out business. The same dynamic applies to ISIS,” J.M. Berger, a non-resident fellow on the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and co-author of the recently released ISIS: The State of Terror told ThinkProgress.

“It is possible that removing Baghdadi could have a significant impact on ISIS, but it is by no means guaranteed. What we still don’t know is exactly how much credit he deserves for holding the ISIS coalition together and for devising its strategy, in part or in whole.”

According to interviews with multiple analysts who closely follow IS, Baghdadi’s operational impact may be unknown but he is still not thought to be a disposable figurehead.

“He may play a critical role in directing those deputies, or balancing the group’s internal politics to keep it from descending into infighting,” said Berger.

“I think he is important to ISIS,” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum told Think Progress. “The fact is other leading figures within ISIS are far too obscure to have the aura and personality cult of a caliph that is essential to ISIS.”

“The position of caliph requires the right family and tribal connections to the prophet Muhammad and credentials as an Islamist scholar. That’s much more complicated than finding another terrorist,” said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran with stints in the Middle East.

Baghdadi was hit by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Iraq’s border with Syria on March 18, according to the Guardian. Baghdadi’s injuries have allegedly left him alive but unable to handle strategic or military operations.

The Pentagon meanwhile could not confirm the injury allegations. “We have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi,” Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman, told the Daily Beast.

Losing Baghdadi would be a moral blow to the group and potentially have certain logistical ramifications.

“It might put the Caliphate ideal in doubt and prompt defections from within IS rank and file particularly those of other group affiliations in origin who gave bayah [allegiance],” said Tamimi.

But his health aside, analysts are scant to predict the group’s downfall.

“Operationally, Baghdadi[‘s] death would not mean the end of ISIS,” said Tamimi.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress