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Baghdadi’s elimination does not mean the end of Islamist terrorism; By Jai Kumar Verma

Article No. 36/2019

US President Donald Trump disclosed in a televised address on October 27 that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, head of Islamic State, had been killed in a raid by Special Forces in the Idlib region of northwest Syria. Trump also said that Baghdadi committed suicide by detonating an explosives-laden vest when he was trapped in a tunnel with his three children. The Baghdadi-led Islamic State (IS) has been responsible for numerous beheadings and mass killings.

The removal of Baghdadi was the result of a successful intelligence operation launched by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in conjunction with Iraqi intelligence. The intelligence agencies got the break in February 2018 when Turkish authorities handed over Ismael al Ethawi, a close associate of Baghdadi, to Iraqi intelligence. Ethawi, a PhD in Islamic Sciences, was one of Baghdadi’s five top aides and was involved in the selection of Islamic State commanders. Although Ethawi fled to Syria in 2017, when IS collapsed, he was spotted by intelligence agencies in Idlib five months ago. The CIA then tracked Baghdadi through satellite and drones.

Baghdadi also encountered strong opposition from local groups in Syria, especially from Hayat Tahir al-Sham, earlier known as the Nusra Front, which has a strong presence in Idlib. All anti-IS forces joined hands to remove Baghdadi and they succeeded.

While Baghdadi’s death was widely welcomed, leaders and analysts cautioned that it did not mean the end of Islamic State. Joe Biden, former US vice president now contesting for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination for 2020, as well as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, said that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will remain a potential danger to the American people and its allies; hence the US must ensure that IS does not regroup or become powerful again.

The Iranian government spokesperson said that the US had killed its own creation, but that would not end Daesh (Islamic State) nor its ideology, which will continue to get financial assistance from regional powers. Iran, a Shia dominated country, is an important foe of IS, which follows Salafi ideology. IS does not consider Shias as true Muslims and wants them annihilated.

Baghdadi was not only ruthless, but he also had leadership qualities. He took charge of Islamic State in Iraq in 2010 and soon made the outfit so powerful that large areas of Syria and Iraq came under his control. IS has a large number of dedicated followers all over the world and their number is not decreasing. Baghdadi announced he had become "Caliph" in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq in July 2014 and, since then, his followers recognised him as the political and religious leader of the whole Muslim world. Large numbers of terrorist outfits - including in South Asia - accepted him as their leader.

Even when IS lost Iraq and Syria and Baghdadi went into hiding, a loyal worldwide IS following remained. Terrorists who perpetrated the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka owed allegiance to IS. There are numerous cases of a 'lone wolf’ attack, where a disenchanted Muslim youth attacked and killed numerous persons and later claimed affiliation to IS. The next person who claims the mantle of IS leadership may not have widespread recognition among Islamic terrorists and is unlikely to get much support from many terrorist outfits.

Baghdadi’s successor will have to demonstrate unique characteristics to diverse terrorist outfits before being accepted as their "Caliph". It is possible that IS may now be divided as there are ideological differences between various leaders. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, will also try to emerge stronger and try to get IS leaders and workers to defect to Al Qaeda.

When Baghdadi was killed, many of his associates were arrested by security forces and a lot of material, including future plans of IS, was captured. The security forces will aim to demolish IS safe houses and arrest its adherents.

The IS has already placed a lot of pro-terrorist, anti-democratic literature on the internet which can radicalise and pollute Muslim minds. The material on the internet criticises all other religions and emphasises that the world should be ruled through Sharia, the Islamic canonical law. This hate material appeals to disillusioned Muslims all over the world and they indulge in terrorist activities. Hence the intelligence organisations of countries that are working against IS should cooperate with each other so that maximum damage can be done to IS. The killing of Baghdadi is a definite achievement, but neither is Islamic State finished nor it is the end of Islamist terrorism in the world. It is a fact that Baghdadi’s killing will not end the ideology of IS and the global fight against terrorism will have to continue.

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. )

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