15 July 2017

Is Baghdadi Dead? For ISIS, it May Not Matter

By Paul D. Shinkman

The U.S. government on Tuesday said it could not verify increasingly widespread reports that Russian forces had killed Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a move that many hope would not only rid the extremist network of its charismatic so-called caliph but also undercut its ability to recruit.

"We cannot confirm this report but hope it is true," a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. headquarters fighting the Islamic State group, tells U.S. News. "We strongly advise ISIS to implement a strong line of succession. It will be needed."

Moscow's claim on Tuesday marks at least the third time its state media has reported that Russian forces killed Baghdadi, stemming from a supposed air strike somewhere outside the Islamic State group's capital of Raqqa, Syria, in May. This time, the U.K.-based non-governmental organization Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the report.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, has been actively targeting and killing top leaders since the war began three years ago and, within Iraq and Syria, has been quite successful. Army Col. Ryan Dillon told U.S. News last month about these high value targets, saying, "There was an 'org chart,' if you had Baghdadi and his lieutenants and deputies, any HVTs we strike nowadays are typically people who are on the fourth or fifth string."

Yet Baghdadi has remained an elusive and highly symbolic target, deserving of the $25 million bounty the State Department has offered for information leading to his whereabouts or capture. The former al-Qaida operative, one-time inmate at the now notorious U.S. military Camp Bucca in Iraq and self-proclaimed descendant of the Muslim prophet Muhammad was last seen giving a sermon in 2014 at the main mosque in Mosul. What was then the newly christened capital of the Islamic State group in Iraq has as of this week been liberated by the Iraqi security forces with American and coalition support.

It was Baghdadi's ability to organize the Islamic State group into an army that led to its rise in 2014. It captured a massive swathe of land across Syria and Iraq. Following continued losses since 2015, Baghdadi turned the group into an insurgent network that has successfully carried out attacks in places like Paris and Brussels, all in his name.

Even if reports of his demise were true, however, the potency of the Islamic State group would likely remain undamaged.

"We need to be cautious with regards to Baghdadi because there is always the chance that he is succeeded by someone better," says Michael Knights, an analyst for the region with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This is exactly how we got Baghdadi. He was better than the two leaders of the Islamic State [group] that we killed in 2010."

Knights is among many experts who point to the Islamic State group's success in dispersing its leaders throughout the globe, who have set up de facto and independent franchises reportedly as far away as West Africa or Southeast Asia.

"While Baghdadi's ascent to caliph was important in recruiting foreign fighters and building a facade of legitimacy around his state-building project, the far more important objective is to continue dismantling the organization as a whole, including its affiliates in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Afghanistan," wrote Rand Corp. expert Colin Clarke in a June op-ed.

Fred Hof, then-President Barack Obama's czar for Syria, agrees that the death of Baghdadi would largely serve as a superficial hit to the group's capabilities.

"Whether or not it's a significant setback depends on how this organization has actually done in terms of leadership development over the last two years," says Hof, now a director at the Atlantic Council. "There is a pretty impressive roster of people, who richly deserve death, actually being killed. But it's always difficult to know just how deep you have to go to achieve decisive results."

When asked on Tuesday, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the coalition fighting the Islamic State group, could not offer any specifics on Baghdadi's whereabouts.

"Quite honestly, I don't know," he told reporters from his headquarters in Baghdad. "I hope he's deader than a doornail. If he's not, as soon as we find out where he is, he will be."

Hof believes that Russia's claims likely stem from its original justification for deploying its military to Syria in 2015 under the pretext of protecting the regime of Bashar Assad, Moscow's patron, from the extremist threat. U.S. military officials, however, estimate privately as much as 90 percent of Russia's military activity has actually targeted Syrian opposition forces, not Islamic State group fighters.

"For Russia to be able to claim that it killed the caliph may go a long way, at least for those in the Kremlin, in finally, finally adding an element of objective truth to the story Russia was putting out in September 2015," Hof says.

As for the $25 million bounty, Russia could not claim it even if its reports are true. The statute governing the Rewards for Justice initiative disqualifies any officers or employees of a foreign government from receiving the reward "in the performance of their official duties," a State Department spokesperson says. 

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