The release Wednesday of files seized in the 2011 Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout has drawn renewed attention to the late al-Qaeda leader. Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in the raid six years ago, but his al-Qaeda legacy is still the subject of public debate and expert analysis, despite the emergence of an arguably more powerful rival group, the Islamic State.
Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been declared dead several times now, although the group recently released an audio file meant to prove that he is still alive. But even if the reports of Baghdadi’s death turn out to be true at some point, would it really matter as much as the killing of bin Laden did? Probably not.
Bin Laden may have been involved in the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda before 9/11, but he subsequently spent the vast majority of his life as the world’s most wanted terrorist in the role of a more symbolic figure and recruiter-in-chief. Bin Laden worked on a broad strategy for the group, mostly relying on his own public profile and status within the global jihadist movement to pressure associated groups into following his guidance.
In contrast, Baghdadi has made few public remarks. Those comments may have galvanized hardcore supporters, but what really attracted many foreigners who joined the movement were the group's slick propaganda videos or the social media accounts of fighters.
The Islamic State has also prepared for the possible death of Baghdadi for years, researchers believe. “The Islamic State’s organizational structure has been built to ensure that Baghdadi’s death would not deal a significant blow to the group’s operations, with a relatively broad network of commanders and likely a succession structure in place with some depth,” said Otso Iho, a senior analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
“There is a reason why he hasn’t been featured that much in the group’s propaganda — they are aware that if they put too much emphasis on one individual who can be killed, the entire organization could suffer as a result,” said Charlie Winter, a senior researcher with London’s International Center for the Study of Radicalization who specializes in the group’s propaganda.
To understand why, look at the history of the Islamic State. Its forerunner, known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi around 2004 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.) As the group's name implies, it was linked with bin Laden.
By the time Baghdadi took the reins of what was left of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010, bin Laden was more of an ideological leader than an operational day-to-day manager, whose messages took weeks or months to reach their destinations for security reasons. When the U.S. forces killed bin Laden in 2011, it came as a huge setback for global jihadist movements that had looked up to him for advice. It also disrupted al-Qaeda, which at the time mostly consisted of various splinter groups that were more or less loosely connected.
“Sometimes, the removal of a leader can cause a substantial degradation of a group,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. The Taliban, for example, covered up the death of its leader, Mohammad Omar, for two years until 2015 out of fear that the group would break apart.
“But in most cases, a leader’s death only speeds up the rise of even more radical successors,” said Pantucci. This was the case with the killing of bin Laden, which opened a path for new leaders and the creation of new radical splinter groups no longer bound by his influence. That included Baghdadi’s group, which soon gained momentum in Iraq and Syria, then already embroiled in its own civil war.
Within two years of bin Laden’s death, the Islamic State was carrying out a revitalized and arguably even more toxic strain of Islamist terrorism both in the Middle East and around the world. In addition to launching attacks in the West, it gained the allegiance of other groups in countries such as Libya and Nigeria.
The Islamic State was soon described by U.S. officials as being more dangerous than al-Qaeda. Yet despite being named caliph of an actual territory, Baghdadi never reached bin Laden’s status within the global jihadist movement, and is unlikely ever to do so.
Baghdadi’s greatest achievement was the capture of physical territory he dubbed the Islamic State, but with that mostly gone, so goes his legacy. Bin Laden, on the other hand, will always be known as the man who took violent radical Islam and spread it across the world.