The Twittersphere was aswirl Monday with rumors that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the feared but reclusive leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), had been injured or killed in a U.S.-led strike that destroyed an ISIL convoy outside of Mosul on Friday. While analysts say it is unlikely Baghdadi has died – citing the lack of credible chatter among extremist circles online – comments from Iraqi intelligence officials and the Ministry of the Interior that the country was “investigating” his fate were enough to touch off speculation about what it would mean for the nascent “caliphate” to lose its ruthless leader.
A Pentagon spokeswoman told Al Jazeera it had “no information” about Baghdadi’s alleged injury, but even the very possibility that U.S.-led strikes could successfully target a convoy of ISIL leaders was cause for encouragement amid an international campaign that has thus far failed to dislodge the hard-bitten fighters or stem their UN-estimated influx of 6,000 recruits per month.
But taking out the elusive Baghdadi would be more than a morale boost. Because of his centrality to ISIL’s ideological messaging and its recruiting propaganda, experts say the 'caliph' could be an Achilles heel for the insurgency.
Baghdadi, who has made just one known public appearance since declaring himself leader of an Islamic caliphate across Syria and Iraq in June, is widely credited for spearheading the group’s transformation from an Al-Qaeda-breakaway faction in Syria into a transnational insurgency with designs on regional domination. His announcement in June of the restored caliphate — long regarded as a pipe dream by Al-Qaeda and like-minded fighters — was accompanied by the demand that extremist leaders near and far declare allegiance to him. It was a brazen and still controversial challenge to Al-Qaeda's long-held supremacy atop the extremist world order that also vaulted Baghdadi to the fore of the global counter-terror effort.
According to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on extremist violence at the Middle East Forum in Washington, D.C., Baghdadi has positioned himself as even more crucial to ISIL’s organizational capacity than Osama bin Laden was to Al-Qaeda before his death in a 2010 U.S. raid. Whereas Al-Qaeda is a diffuse network of shadowy cells, ISIL purports to be a functioning state whose military units take orders from a central authority — namely, Baghdadi and his top commanders.
Unlike Bin Laden, who easily abdicated to current Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Baghdadi is claiming to be the caliph, Tamimi explained. “There’s a lot more invested in his personal image and his religious legitimacy. His demise is not something ISIL could easily handle,” he said.
One practical implication of killing Baghdadi could be the splintering of support among the coalition of disaffected Sunni groups that have made ISIL’s rise in Syria and Iraq possible. ISIL’s expansion is dependent on state collapse in Iraq and Syria, where the insurgents have managed to convince local Sunnis to turn on oppressive Shia and Alawite regimes, respectively. These Sunnis include ordinary citizens who do not share ISIL’s fanaticism and even secular Saddam-era Ba’athists, who many expect will grow resentful of ISIL's brutality and its penchant for slaughtering all who stand in its path — fellow Sunnis included.
If Baghdadi fell, partner militias led by Saddam-era commanders would be released from their religiously binding vows of loyalty, or bayat, to the caliph, at least until a successor was chosen. Significantly, those commanders are believed to be the authors of ISIL's battle plan, which has allowed ISIL's army of amateur recruits and unwilling conscripts to win almost every major battle they have fought.
“If some of ISIS’ tribal partners are disillusioned with how the group has been doing business, his death would be an opportunity to get out, from a religious perspective,” said J.M. Berger, a researcher and the author of an upcoming book on ISIL’s rise. “Pragmatically, I imagine there would be a very high risk of bloody retribution for anyone jumping ship though.”
There are similarly conflicting interpretations of Baghdadi’s import to ISIL supporters abroad. Many posit that the death of the “caliph” could erode the group's veneer of invincibility and embolden its enemies on the ground.
ISIL’s network of supporters on social media beg to differ. Most have either denounced the rumors or, in the case of one apparently off-message ISIL supporter, downplayed the impact Baghdadi's death would have on the group's mission. “Do you really think that the caliphate ends with the martyrdom of the caliph?” a Twitter user by the name of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani asked rhetorically on Sunday.
Though it is still too early to gauge how U.S.-led strikes will change the equation on the ground in Syria and Iraq, many suspect a grinding battle that will drag on for years. Berger said that even if the U.S. was able to take out Baghdadi, the group's impressive flow of cash and recruits might be little deterred.
"Keep in mind Baghdadi's personality is not all that known outside the areas where ISIS operates," Berger said, using another acronym for ISIL. “I think the global supporters and recruits are signing up for the idea more than the man."