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The death of Baghdadi isn’t the end of ISIS

Research shows eliminating the leader of a terrorist group is not enough

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, speaks as a picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen during a news briefing Wednesday at the Pentagon. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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On Oct. 26, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, arguably the most wanted terrorist in the world, detonated a suicide belt to avoid capture by U.S. forces. His death, an important and symbolic event in the fight against the Islamic State, was soon followed by the announcement of a successor last Thursday.

ISIS has suffered significant setbacks over the past two years, losing most of its territorial control, and has returned to its roots as an insurgent organization. Although the group no longer operates as a proto-state governing vast amounts of land, it remains active, with estimates of between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. According to the Global Terrorism Database, ISIS has carried out thousands of attacks since 2014.

Given the recent successes in the fight against ISIS, many analysts and government officials are optimistic that Baghdadi’s death will result in substantial weakening and perhaps the demise of ISIS. Advocates of this view argue that Baghdadi is irreplaceable, given his claim of lineage to the prophet Muhammad, religious credentials and education in Koranic studies, and operational success in creating an Islamic State. Despite this belief in Baghdadi’s authority and legitimacy as a leader of the self-proclaimed caliphate, however, ISIS is not a cult of personality. Baghdadi was successful in institutionalizing essential organizational structures.

In my book, “Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations,” I examine whether capturing or killing terrorist leaders is an effective counterterrorism strategy. I determine whether this tactic has an effect on the frequency of terrorist attacks, a group’s survival and its overall life span. Looking at nearly 1,000 instances of leadership decapitation from 1970 to 2016 revealed that it is often ineffective against religious, separatist, Islamist and large organizations.

Rather, to effectively bring down a terrorist group through targeting its leader, it’s important to consider three factors: organizational structure, ideology and popular support. My research suggests that Baghdadi’s death will not hinder the operational capacity or bring about the collapse of ISIS. In fact, it could even be counterproductive to weakening ISIS. Here’s why.

Bureaucracy improves the odds of a terrorist group’s survival

Bureaucratized terrorist organizations are diversified with a clear division of administrative responsibilities and functions, standard operations procedures, and other characteristics that create redundancies to support their resilience. In the case of ISIS, Baghdadi created complex bureaucratic structures to govern and manage its finances, social programs, infrastructure and military resources. ISIS has also developed into a hybrid organizational structure. That is, the group is hierarchical at the upper organizational levels, with the emir at the top; deputies who oversee financial, military, legal and social operations; and legislative councils including the Shura Council. At the lower operational levels, the group is more decentralized, with networks including those in Iraq and Syria; affiliated groups in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa; and lone actors who span the globe. Such hybrid structures are especially difficult to weaken through targeting efforts.

Most significant for the immediate response to Baghdadi’s death is that bureaucracies have clear succession mechanisms in place. ISIS has a wide and deep pool of militants from which to recruit his successor and a bureaucracy that encourages specialization and training. Less than a week after Baghdadi’s death, the organization announced a successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, as the new caliph. While his identity is currently unknown, the name suggests that he is also descended from the prophet Muhammad’s Qurashi tribe, providing credentials similar to that of Baghdadi.

The ideology doesn’t depend on the leader

The leadership of Islamist, religious or separatist groups is not necessary for recruitment, inspiring attacks or ensuring that the group’s message stays relevant. The ideology becomes self-sustaining, and the Islamic State’s use of propaganda and technology have been effective at broadening their base of support transnationally.

After losing substantial amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman and senior leader who was killed in 2016, focused on the group’s shift to an ideological message. In August 2018, Baghdadi urged his followers to carry out lone-actor attacks in Western countries. He referenced the Islamic State’s history as a “network of insurgent groups waging war against Americans.” Adnani declared quite prophetically that while ISIS may experience periods of weakening, the broader movement and ideology cannot be eliminated.

A statement released by ISIS last Thursday underscored this ideological dimension and reiterated that the Islamic State remains. Spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who quickly replaced the prior spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, killed the day after Baghdadi, called upon followers to be “steadfast on their religion and jihad” and “keen to take revenge for their leaders and brothers against the disbelievers and apostates.” This call for revenge is noteworthy, as removing the head can create martyrs, embolden organizations and precipitate retaliatory attacks. That Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest is particularly significant in this context. As a martyr, his death has the potential to inspire the group’s strong support.

Popular support is necessary for a terrorist group to operate

It grants the basis for group legitimacy, which can increase an organization’s efficiency and resilience. After an attack on a terrorist group’s leadership, popular support is essential to maintaining organizational strength and capacity. The creation of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate broadened this base of support. ISIS extracted resources from its local networks through exploiting oil fields, taxation, stealing, extortion and kidnapping, which provided it with a vast amount of financial and military resources and enabled the organization to sustain itself going forward.

The effect of decapitation on the future of the Islamic State

These findings suggest that the loss of Baghdadi, while a tactical victory in the fight against ISIS, will not result in its destabilization or demise. The caliphate may be weakened, but Baghdadi created a highly resilient bureaucratic organizational structure capable of withstanding the loss of leaders.

Despite this, it is unlikely that U.S. targeting efforts will subside. Attacks on high-profile leaders are visible counterterrorism measures that can make a fearful U.S. audience feel secure in the belief that their government is successfully fighting the war on terrorism. It is an alternative to such costly policies as large-scale military operations. But in the case of ISIS, it’s an alternative that not only disregards critical aspects of the group’s resilience — it could even fuel a strengthened retaliation.

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Jenna Jordan is an associate professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of “Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations” (Stanford University Press, November 2019).