Terror Tracker Intelligence Brief : Baghdadi Dead What Next?
On October 27, the US President announced killing of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in the north western Syrian province of Idlib in an intelligence driven security operation.
Transcript of Abu Hamza al Qurayshi’s speech published in al Nabaa weekly
Subsequently, on October 31, a day after ISIS confirmed the death of al Baghdadi and their spokesperson Abu Hassan al Muhajir, the new spokesperson Abu Hamza al Qurayshi released his first audio, a detailed transcript of which was released by the jihadi group’s al Nabaa Weekly in its 206th edition on October 31. Finally, the support groups have also initiated a campaign to pledge allegiance to the new leader.
SHORT TO MID-TERM IMPACT- WHAT TO EXPECT?
In the immediate future, retaliatory strikes manifested in the form of a potential surge in continued hit and run attacks as has been witnessed on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria may be witnessed. Given the group's continued strong media capabilities, these are likely to be categorised as ‘vengeance strikes’ aimed at shoring up the morale of the fighters as well as supporters.
The possibilities of limited unprecedented attacks in areas outside the group's operational stronghold by IS affiliates and supporters also cannot be completely ruled out over the coming months.
As has been witnessed in the case of other transnational militant groups, including al Qaeda, the future course of ISIS's potency depends primarily upon two factors among others.
IS official media source confirming the death of al-Baghdadi
While appointment of a successor need not necessarily guarantee the operational tempo the group once enjoyed. This view is further bolstered by the case of al Qaeda wherein Zawahiri has achieved limited success in replicating the operational tempo achieved by Osama bin Laden. The group also increasingly relies on active regional affiliates like al Shabab in East Africa and AQAP in Yemen to remain operationally relevant. The same maybe witnessed in case of ISIS if the contemporary leadership fails to galvanise support which will warrant a sustained and systematic high value operations which in the current scenario remains operationally unviable for ISIS, at least in the short to mid run.
Pro-IS groups calling for a pledge of allegiance to the new ‘Caliph’
As an interim measure and to bring some sense of order in the rank and file system (or whatever is left of it), IS aligned media groups has initiated a pledge of allegiance (bayah) among its supporters to the new leader. A similar venture in the preceding months following the first video release of al Baghdadi in April had received a favourable response across the globe with IS affiliates as well as inspired entities
re-pledging allegiance to the ‘Caliph’.
The expected renewal of the pledge of allegiance is likely to provide some clarity if the new leader commands the same degree of authority and support as the former. This will also determine the extent of potential factionalism among elements that are not in line with the current dispensations agendas.
As was witnessed in case of AQ following the death of Osama Bin Laden, in terms of propaganda, the central leadership is more likely to seek to rally support around the idea of revenge for the killing of the ‘Caliph’. However, given precedence of similar rallying campaigns, the ‘shelf-life’ of such exercises remains limited. This leaves the IS central with limited options to maneuver with planning and executing high profile attacks as the brightest, yet most difficult bet given the group’s significantly curtailed operational capabilities beyond ‘hit and run’ attacks.
While the prevailing socio economic and political situations were pivotal for the rise and proliferation of IS ideology and other deviant ideologies before it, the continuation of the phenomenon is more or less certain. However, the concentration of international military resources facilitating kinetic operations in former IS held areas will remain likely to be a deterrent in the short run. This is expected to force the militant ideologues to settle for a lower profile and 'wait it out' before capitalising on any prevailing sentiments to initiate a potential resurgence.
IMPACT ON TRANSNATIONAL MILITANT RIVALRY
A trend over the preceding months indicate that the overall rivalry has been limited to propaganda ‘saber-rattling’ with both group accusing the other of deviating from the actual agenda of transnational ‘Jihad’ (Holy War). Moreover, both the groups have sought and more or less failed to dislodge the other from their areas of operations and the rivalry has more or less ‘stabilized’. This has resulted in Al Qaeda (through its affiliates) maintaining dominant positions in parts of Africa and Yemen while IS holding sizable sway over its erstwhile strongholds of Iraq and Syria through a network of underground support structures and sympathisers as well as negligible presence in certain pockets of Afghanistan, Philippines, Egypt among others.
While the death of al-Baghdadi is likely to be used by the now weakened AQ central leadership to sway the fringe elements/ support groups to its ranks, the likelihood of the same remains limited and is unlikely to result in any significant capability enhancement of AQ at least in the short to mid run.
The latest series of operations targeting the IS leadership, have, by all means, dented the residual operational capabilities of IS at least in the short run. The group is more likely to resort to a relatively lesser ambitious operational agenda over the coming weeks. However, given the continued presence of enablers including support base and relevant resources the potential of resurgence, albeit not manifested in territorial gains, but potentially in a more radical ideology remains more or less certain in the long run.