Late in October 2019, President Donald Trump announced the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who committed suicide during a US special mission. His mutilated remains were positively identified, according to Trump’s statement, and ISIS itself has acknowledged the death of its leader.
“[Baghdadi] died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Trump described at the White House. “He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast . . . Test results gave certain immediate and totally positive identification. It was him. He died like a dog. He died like a coward.”
Trump’s harsh criticism clashes with a resurfaced twenty-minute video of Baghdadi earlier this year brimming with religious zeal—a hope for ISIS terrorists that perhaps the caliphate had been chased away, but not defeated, by anti-terrorist forces. This message of endurance and anticipated resurrection could be viewed as ironic, considering the caliph’s death, but perhaps still serves as a rallying cry for his recruits, and foreshadows their ability to carry on his legacy via remobilization.
The idolized caliph is dead, as is his vow to lead ISIS into a greater future. But has ISIS been so horribly shaken by his sudden death that it will never regain the power that it held just a few years ago? ISIS members have fervently argued, through social media sources such as TikTok, that they were recruited not only for allegiance to Baghdadi, but also for their allegiance to a greater good, irrespective of their leader. But ultimately, while ISIS has suffered a major blow, the uncertainty surrounding the West’s ongoing war against terrorism will allow it, or a splinter organization, to return with a strong vengeance, as the strength of its organization lays in its members’ loyalty to an ideology and not to a leader. In other words, ISIS’s ideology has a life of its own—and it will not die with Baghdadi. For a long-term solution to ISIS and its possible splinters, the United States must look to history and must prevent the radicalization of everyday Americans through cultural changes.
Background on Baghdadi: Academic, Revolutionary, and Killer
Baghdadi was born to a religious lower-middle class family, the son of a man who taught recitations at a mosque, who imparted onto Baghdadi the value of religion. Nicknamed “The Believer,” Baghdadi spent most of his time in mosques, devoting orations to the scripture, and scolding people who disobeyed Islamic law. Although outspokenly religious, in reality, his former neighbors noted that Baghdadi was quiet, reserved, and taciturn as a teenager. Nonetheless, his academic and pious background stands representative of his vision as a caliph with religious fervor.
Baghdadi’s religious background does not stop at his childhood years - his young adulthood saw clashes of faiths that continued to shape his dogmatist mindset as well. His family also had connections to Salafi groups. Salafism is a puritanical branch of Sunni Islam, whose adherents proudly declare it as the “purest form” of Islam. A very literalist approach to Islam, it is practiced in Iraq by Sunni Muslims, and often urges the reconciliation of church and state. Given its extremism, Salafism is the ideology of many terrorist groups.
Naturally, Saddam Hussein viewed Salafis as political rivals, for they condemned his secular rule. But recognizing the power of religion, Hussein implemented a Faith Campaign, in which he banned public drinking, shut down nightclubs, and favored cruel penalties for crime, such as the traditional hand-hacking for thievery. A major aspect of the campaign required the study of the Qur’an in secondary schools, which may have swayed Baghdadi’s decision to further study scripture at the University of Baghdad, where he wrote a thesis on Qur'anic chants. Under Hussein’s regime, where there was no public sphere to debate the leader’s policies, this project stapled a cautious and conservative approach to the adherence to Sunni Islam within Baghdadi’s mind. If not already solidified, his recruitment into the Muslim Brotherhood as a university student convinced him of religious justice via the overthrow of state leaders considered traitors to the faith.
Many believe Baghdadi became an Islamic revolutionary after joining the Brotherhood. In 2004, after the American invasion of Iraq, he was interned by US forces for participating in a resistance movement. He was imprisoned in Camp Bucca as a “civilian internee.” But his bookish, introverted personality and “minor” role convinced the US government to release him early—a reserved tactic that he would again find successful as the caliph of the Islamic State.
In 2006, he took on the mantle as a leader in the Iraqi splinter of al-Qaeda forces after the assassination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After being forced temporarily underground, Baghdadi and his newly-renamed Islamic State gained prominence and global infamy in 2013, when they seized massive territories in Syria, enslaved women and children, slaughtered men who refused to join their forces, and eventually gained sovereignty over a region the size of Britain, that is, a third of Syria and a fourth of Iraq. Governing eight million civilians, Baghdadi declared ISIS a caliphate in what would be one of his five media appearances.
Under his command, ISIS killed over 18,000 victims in two years and enslaved around 3,500 civilians.
The West Looks On: Hesitance on the War on Terrorism?
When Osama bin Laden was killed in a US-led raid in Pakistan, President Barack Obama’s declaration made headlines worldwide, most notably on TIME’s cover page with a crossed out face of the al-Qaeda’s leader. With headlines such as “GOT HIM,” hopes of the end of the “war on terrorism” encompassed the Western attitude towards extremists. After Baghdadi’s slow rise—from a shy scholar of a conservative faith to the mysterious, charismatic mass murderer—we now see that this optimism was misplaced.
While Baghdadi’s death did admittedly give brief catharsis to the direct victims and related families of his terrorist organization, his suicide and defeat were not as celebrated in the West as bin Laden’s assassination was. Newspapers did not praise Trump’s self-congratulatory speech as they did Obama’s announcement, and the news was kept low-profile. Perhaps this is partially due to Trump’s unpopularity with the American people, or the overshadowing news of the impeachment process. However, another contributing factor can be found in the overall wariness against the war on terrorism.
Bin Laden’s defeat was a first in a strange war against a modern murderous cult, and Baghdadi’s rise just showed that the war on terrorism would drag on longer than people would hope. Baghdadi’s death is an example of just another player being knocked out of a stage of hundreds of thousands of radical extremists. The ideology he has warped into existence has taken on an immortal life—and it cannot be killed by US special forces. His creation is capable of outlasting individuals and carried on through the psychological conversion of more and more generations ahead.
This lack of reaction is concerning, on two accounts. For one, it shows that the morale for the fight against terrorism is weakening. With such a bleak outlook coming from what is one of the largest defenders of human rights and democracy, the United States’s current plan of action—withdrawing from Syria, in regards to the government, and, in regards to the public, not celebrating the death of Baghdadi in the same was that bin Laden’s death was celebrated—taints the image of America’s own military might and its posture in the war on terrorism. Even if ISIS has essentially been territorially defeated with Baghdadi’s death, its ideology stills garners plenty of support, even in Chicago. And, with an absent America, this ideology only stands to gain more support. As for the second concern, this lack of American action provides all the more incentive for ISIS and subsequent terrorist groups to further commit violence, as the general public realizes that its strategy works and can—and will—bounce back after a temporary stall.
What’s Next for ISIS?
Undoubtedly, ISIS might have some trouble adjusting to the loss of its leader, even if the organization recently announced that it has already found a replacement, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, less than a week after Baghdadi’s death. Although whether Qurayshi’s cachet is as mystical and alluring as Baghdadi’s authority remains to be seen, ISIS could face a near-Herculean effort to convince future recruiters to join its global mission.
A dozen TikTok accounts have been flagged, hundreds of posts from Twitter have been taken down, and a recent Chicagoan, DePaul University student Thomas Osadzinski, has coded videos for easier access to ISIS propaganda. In other words, there has been a surge in ISIS’s publicity. Further, ISIS has recently expanded into South Asia, including Pakistan and the Kashmir region of India, and has shown alarmingly rapid progress toward the further expansion and decentralization farther East. Ever since the US withdrawal from Syria as well, ISIS has also been conducting strategic raids in the region, adding onto the ongoing conflict of the civil war while gaining followers in its wake.
ISIS has also utilized the voices of women and children in vocalizing the insistence for recruitment and vengeance against the United States. In particular, montages of children have spread via social media: young boys stare furiously into a camera, yelling, “Don’t think this is over! Don’t think the war is over! Don’t think that the [Islamic] State is over!” Running on rage and an implication that the United States has committed unspeakable atrocities against their end goal, Baghdadi’s mission lives on within another generation, even if its glory days have passed.
Women also appear in these propaganda videos, saluting Baghdadi as a “martyr” to their Islamic cause. Showering praise on the former caliph, these women declare, “[We are] not mourning, [there are] no tears. One hundred more will replace him.” Overall, this is a warning to the West: the leader may be dead, but the cause lives within thousands of his followers.
One may argue that this is all talk, as most propaganda is, and that Baghdadi’s death has in fact led to an intense weakening of ISIS. We have already seen this concept play out with the appointment of Zawahiri following bin Laden’s death, as he lacked the confidence and direction of the al Qaeda founder. His “masquerading” of propaganda was regrettable, to say the least, and attracted far less followers than the nascent ISIS, as recruits flocked to Syria to join the caliphate’s efforts. In fact, it took the infamous name of “bin Laden,” in the form of Hamza bin Laden, to garner the aspirations of al Qaeda’s recruits, and even then, al Qaeda’s power dwindles.
But it is important to note that ISIS’s fate may not end as the way al Qaeda’s trajectory seems to be following. Trump has admitted, “We know the successors. And we've already got them in our sights… Hamza bin Laden was a big thing [for al Qaeda], but this is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever.” Perhaps it is a small exaggeration for political reputation, but Trump still acknowledges that Qurayshi may have the resonance that Baghdadi once had with his followers—possibly even at a greater magnitude than we have seen before. And more importantly, ISIS has had an interesting strategy to gain followers, a flashy medium through online political propaganda, that has attracted and seduced the interests of soon-to-be converts in the United States—a strategy that al-Qaeda was unable to master.
Who Are ISIS’s Latest Recruits?
The greatest irony in the US-led war against terrorism is perhaps that ISIS finds many believers and followers in the general American public. Regular, day-to-day Americans, even if not active militant fighters, have quietly grown inspired by ISIS ideals, later to rally for their violent cause.
The Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) analyzes terrorist intent in three ways: attacking or conspiring to attack the United States, conspiring to join ISIS abroad, or assisting others to travel abroad to join ISIS. From the data collected for these three fields, the statistics showed that a vast majority of ISIS indictees from the United States were US citizens by birth (around 64 percent), and almost two-thirds attended university—close to the national average. Even further, many of the indictees were in a committed relationship, and some were members of other religious groups before converting into Sunni Islam. In other words, these recruited members, some of whom become recruiters for ISIS themselves, are everyday people. They are average Americans not only in education, but in terms of relationships and citizenship as well. The mere fact that ISIS attracts new members from the seemingly most normal people of American society—on a far grander scale than al Qaeda ever achieved—is not only unsettling, but also a very telling sign as to how ISIS successfully manipulates people into believing in and sympathizing with terrorists who burn innocent civilians alive, destroy entire villages, and threaten to destroy the world order as we know it.
ISIS’s propaganda works with the psyche and effectively communicates the message that quite literally anyone can become a terrorist and can take up arms against the Western world order. It has proven more successful than any other terrorist organization to date to lure in American supporters. CPOST draws connections to the human tendency to form group dynamics psychologically, stating that ISIS’s propaganda videos have clicked so well with the human desire to constantly acquire sociality. Sociality does have its consequences, however; with it comes competition for access to resources and possible death from failure in fending for oneself. With this competition for survival, a desperate search for shared identity arises, and, for some, terrorism appears as a “surrogate family” and nurtures a sense of belonging in the radicalization process. Labeling this as cognitive (in)flexibility, this report suggests that people who are intolerant of ambiguity are the target audiences of religious and political extremism, whose worldviews are “simple” (i.e. The West is evil and we must end it). This inflexibility has already been positively associated with, for instance, ethnic nationalism, and CPOST thus finds it reasonable to admit that ISIS still has a long existence awaiting it in the future. Once they have control over a thought process and ideology, it does not matter much that Baghdadi is dead. As long as they have convinced indictees to switch sides and lives completely, they will live on.
What’s Next for Us?
The United States remains a leader in the elimination of violent militant groups. The greatest fear is that of the splintering of ISIS, which could pose a counterterrorist problem. We have seen al Qaeda split into two groups: the main branch, and the Islamic State, the latter of which grew so powerful that its ideology still lives on, if not for its physical land. This puts the US government in a difficult position. For now, it can keep up the strikes against ISIS in this region in order to achieve short-term benefits. However, it must also take into account previous warning signs—namely the origins of ISIS as al-Qaeda lost strength and the everyday American conversation—before ISIS or the creation of a new caliphate become an undefeatable force altogether.
The US government must prevent the radicalization of its own citizens by investigating the consciousness behind conversion—even after the death of a significant figure such as Baghdadi. Some feel more important and recognized by an ISIS ideology when its propaganda encourages them to “act on their beliefs.” Others feel isolated. This could be more deeply felt by second- or third-generation immigrants, who struggle with their minority status in America—and it shows a positive correlation, as many American ISIS recruits are indeed from immigrant families, whose alienation was perpetuated by perhaps an unwelcome atmosphere. Preventing this hostile environment is a concept the government should assimilate into its agenda. It could start with engaging the youth with community service and secondary education, as Somalia has implemented to counter extremism. Or, just as importantly, embracing the immigrant population, such that their voices feel heard in a country in which they are the minority group, from the prevention of hate crimes to electing officials who are people of color. All in all, disenfranchised Americans cannot fall prey to ISIS’s extremist values if part of the reason is a lack of education and representation. Should that be improved, we would hopefully see a deterrence from terrorist adoration.The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. The license can be found here. The image has not been modified and the author is unknown.