What the Death of Al-Baghdadi would mean for the Islamic State’s Future?

by Jesse Morton

“My dear ummah: As we did not lie against Allah when we proclaimed the Islamic State , so we do not lie against Allah when we say  that it will persist… It will persist upon its creed (‘aqida) and its methodology (manhaj), and it has not, nor will it ever, substitute or abandon these” – Caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, July 21 , 2016

On July 4th 2014, coincidently Independence Day in the United States, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit of Mosul’s Al-Nuri mosque to announce the reestablishment of the Caliphate, the ultimate aspiration of jihadists. Al-Baghdadi pronounced himself Caliph Ibrahim and eulogized, “O Muslims everywhere, glad tidings to you and expect good. Raise your head high, for today – by Allah’s grace – you have a state and khilafah, which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership.” Three years later, the promise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is clearly failing: Mosul has been lost; the Al-Nuri mosque was recently destroyed by the Islamic State‘s own followers; it’s Syrian capital in Raqqah is threatened; and perhaps its caliph has been taken off the playing field altogether.

On July 11th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization with international credibility and sources on the ground, declared that high-level IS operatives had confirmed the death of its leader. IS has not released an official confirmation, but the drama surrounding the situation begs the question: What would become of IS, were the death of its caliph confirmed?

First, it is important to recognize that under current conditions, it would be nearly impossible to call al-Baghdadi’s replacement a caliph at all. Al-Baghdadi’s July 2014 declaration set off a firestorm of conversation about whether the pronouncement of the khilafa was valid. The complaints were many but revolved mostly around the fact that IS, even at that time, did not have sufficient strength or territorial control, nor had IS consulted with scholars capable of determining (ahul hall wal-aqd) whether it had fulfilled these necessities. Influential more moderate scholars rejected it unanimously. The debate expanded everywhere, even into the West, where pro-IS preachers such as Abu-Baraa, Omar Bakri Muhammad’s primary acolyte, took on other Salafists.  The claim was denounced even in the jihadi universe, with key ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi calling it a “rush job” and “illegitimate.” Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri classified it as “sedition.” “We do not acknowledge this caliphate,” Zawahiri said.”Instead, it is an emirate of taking over without consultation, and Muslims are not obligated to pledge allegiance to it.”

Were Baghdadi’s death to be confirmed by ISIS, the khilafa would not only lack territory, but also a substitute caliph. It is imperative to understand that part of what made IS’s declaration of ‘Khilafah’ powerful was the fact that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi fulfilled the thorny conditions for Imamate (Caliphate) outlined by the 11th century scholar Abu Hassan al-Mawardi (Arabic pasted below). As Al-Mawardi explains it, a caliph must possess seven characteristics: 1) Justice together with all its conditions; 2) Knowledge which equips them for ijtihad (giving a legislative ruling); 3) Good health in their faculties of hearing, sight and speech; 4) Sound in limb, free of any deficiency which might prevent them from normal movement; 5) Insight capable of organizing the people and managing the offices of administration; 6) Courage and bravery enabling them to defend the territory of Islam and to mount jihad against the enemy; and 7) Must be from the lineage of the Quraysh (the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad). A combination of the second and final condition will make replacing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi nearly impossible.

The second condition, knowledge which equips one for ijtihad will, in and of itself, prove problematic. While scholars differ in the matter, the earliest work on the topic by Abu Husayn al-Basri (d.1044AD) makes it clear the requirements are quite significant. The mujtahid (one who makes ijtihad) must: be of sound mind with intellectual competence, master of classical Arabic, have comprehensive understanding of the Quran and the major sciences associated with studying it, knowledge of the sunnah (the way of the Prophet Muhammad) and its sciences as well, have knowledge of usool al-fiqh (the principles of jurisprudence) which set the rules upon which ijtihad is structured, competent understanding of the differences of opinion between others with qualifications to exercise ijtihaad, and finally a thorough analysis of the current affairs he or she is ruling on. It can certainly be argued that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not fulfill these prerequisites (quite easily actually), but it is his PhD in Quranic Sciences that sets him apart from others in the IS movement.

With regard to the final condition of a caliph outlined by Al-Mawardi (that a caliph’s lineage must trace back to the prophet’s tribe) it is the powerful combination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic education and his lineage, not only to the Prophet’s tribe, but to the Prophet’s family itself, that mesmerizes followers. Even in the event his successor possessed the scholarly legitimacy required to exercise ijtihad, the candidate’s lineage would prove a major hindrance to widespread acceptance amongst IS supporters. Neither of the leading contenders, thought to be Iyad al-Obaidi and Ayad al-Jumaili, two former Baathist army officers under Sadaam Hussein, fulfills this criteria.

Any appointment would occur during a period likely to witness a drop in IS-propaganda output. From 2006 to 2007, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, announced that the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)  held territory sufficient enough to govern and therefore had established an Islamic State. He was to be ‘amir al-mumineen, the same title given to Mullah Omar in the Emirate of Afghanistan. Abu Umar argued that Americans were on the doorsteps of defeat in Iraq and that after their withdrawal ISI would reestablish the caliphate. That promise would prove far from true, however.  In January 2007, then President George Bush ordered 20,000 American troops to Baghdad and that those already deployed in Anbar Province extend their tours of duty. The ‘troop surge’ was effective. Soon, the initial remnants of IS were extinguished to the degree that most doubted their ability to ever resuscitate. As the group lost territory and its members were killed, imprisoned, or went into hiding there, their propaganda decreased at a similar rate. In May 2007, the group produced 200 propaganda statements and videos; by May 2008, that number decreased to 12.  The case now will likely prove similar.

While still resonating over these three years, IS propaganda production has been on a steady quantitative deterioration. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point analyzed more than 9,000 IS messages produced from January 2015 to June 2016. They found that in August of 2015, at the peak of its power, IS produced 700 posts mostly portraying a life of bliss inside the caliphate. In August 2016, however, only 200 posts were released. With the loss of Mosul already, and pending defeat in Raqqah, the output of IS propaganda is likely to diminish even further.

To be clear, these factors are not to suggest that IS or the ‘open source jihad’ will not continue. It does indicate that others will capitalize immediately. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has not released a speech since November, 2016. His Al-Qaeda counterpart Ayman al-Zawahiri has however increased production exorbitantly during that same period. That is also true for other Al-Qaeda offshoots, non-IS aligned jihadist groups in Syria, and the Taliban. When ISI’s propaganda output fell after the 2007 troop surge, a similar phenomenon transpired. Taliban statements went up four-fold from May, 2007 to May, 2008. Al-Qaeda in general produced more than 1,414 articles of propaganda in 2008 alone, despite an eight-fold increase in drone attacks targeting its leaders. The exorbitant decline in IS propaganda we can expect in the coming period, coupled by a loss in power and resonance associated with the Khilafah’s destruction, will only aid and assist the propaganda of other jihadi organizations.

In the event Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is confirmed dead, it will be nearly impossible for ISIS to appoint another “Khalifah.” The terrorist organization no longer possesses sufficient strength, territory or propaganda to make any appointment relevant. Additionally, finding someone that fulfills the criteria that the khalifah be a descendant from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe will be onerous, if not impossible. Halfway around the world, however, there exists a potential future candidate. In 2015, Ayman al-Zawahiri reintroduced a “lion of the den” to the Muslim community; he was the 28-year old son of Osama bin Laden, Hamza. With face covered and in pristine classical Arabic, Hamza bin Laden’s speech pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban Emirate, wove a synthesis of religious and geopolitical commentary, and congratulated the leaders of Al-Qaeda offshoots around the world. Documents from the Abbottabad raids demonstrate Osama bin Laden stressing that his son was to be educated in both Islam and geopolitics meticulously. It won’t be long before others announce he is qualified in ‘ijtihad.’ Even more intriguing, Hamza is son to Osama’s third wife Khairiah Sabar, a Saudi whose lineage dates back to none other than the prophet Muhammad himself… the real variable that makes al-Baghdadi so hard to replace.

This is not to predict or prophesize Al-Qaeda’s taking back the jihadi mantle or the complete demise of IS, but as we muse over whether al-Baghdadi is dead or who might be appointed his successor, we would do much better to ask what has made the jihadist threat so fluid and resilient since 9/11, when official Al-Qaeda operatives numbered only in the hundreds. Understanding and taking out key figureheads on the ground matters, but being ahead of the curve with regard to jihadi innovations and alterations is perhaps more important.  These theological and jurisprudential issues are seemingly subsidiary, but they offer a key means of comprehending shifts in propaganda, strategy and behavior proactively. At its core, we are engaged in a war of ideas, ideas that seem eternal to adherents. As Yusef al Uyararee, the Al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki translated and utilized to radicalize many in the West explained it, for jihadists, “If the enemy is killed in the battlefield, he considers that as defeat, but we do not. The conflict, in reality, is a conflict of ideas that is translated into battles. If a person gives up these ideas, that is defeat.” Preventing the influence of jihadi doctrine, over here and there, will require a more nuanced appreciation for, and understanding of, the ideology that drives jihadist strategy and behavior.