Af­ter Al Bagh­dadi: will the ter­ror­ist leader con­tinue to snare re­cruits from be­yond the grave?

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - COLIN FREE­MAN

In early 2014, while re­port­ing on a par­tic­u­larly sav­age wave of car bomb­ings in Iraq, I asked a Bri­tish gen­eral if he had heard of a ter­ror­ist with the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr Al Bagh­dadi.

Then lit­tle known to the wider world, Al Bagh­dadi was al­ready build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a fear­some op­er­a­tor. Yet other than a prison mugshot and a string of other aliases such as “the Ghost” and “the In­vis­i­ble Sheikh”, he was an enigma.

“We ei­ther ar­rested or killed a man of that name about half a dozen times. He is like a wraith who keeps reap­pear­ing and

I am not sure where fact and fic­tion meet,” the gen­eral told me. “There are those who pro­mote the idea that this man is in­vin­ci­ble, when it may ac­tu­ally be sev­eral peo­ple us­ing the same nom de guerre.”

Six months later, the man in that prison mugshot be­came renowned the world over when he climbed the pul­pit of Mo­sul’s Al Nuri Grand Mosque and de­clared him­self leader of the new “caliphate” carved out of Iraq and Syria by his ISIS forces. That the mil­i­tary’s best minds had pre­vi­ously won­dered if he even ex­isted was per­haps the ul­ti­mate proof of his abil­ity to dis­ap­pear into the shad­ows.

Yet un­til last week, when US forces fi­nally killed Al Bagh­dadi at a hide­out in north-east Syria, both man and myth had com­bined to cre­ate ar­guably the most bru­tal ter­ror­ist ma­chine ever seen on the planet.

In Syria and Iraq, his fa­nat­ics slaugh­tered fel­low Mus­lims, raped and en­slaved Yazidis, and forced mil­lions to adopt a warped in­ter­pre­ta­tion of eighth-cen­tury Is­lam. Fur­ther afield, his pro­pa­ganda about life in the so-called caliphate drew tens of thou­sands of for­eign fol­low­ers, in­clud­ing the “Bea­tles”, the Bri­tish mil­i­tants who kid­napped and mur­dered western aid work­ers and jour­nal­ists in Syria.

Mean­while, ISIS cells and lone wolves spread ter­ror, death and de­struc­tion on nearly every con­ti­nent, from Easter Day bomb­ings in Sri Lanka to knife ram­pages on Lon­don Bridge.

Ear­lier this week the par­ents one of those mur­dered aid work­ers, Kayla Mueller, wel­comed Al Bagh­dadi’s demise, although there seemed lit­tle chance of it bring­ing clo­sure for their daugh­ter’s death. Mueller, who was taken hostage by ISIS and re­peat­edly raped by Al Bagh­dadi, died in a coali­tion air strike in 2015 but her body has never been found.

In sim­i­lar fash­ion, hopes that Al Bagh­dadi’s death will draw a line un­der his death cult seem equally im­prob­a­ble. He had al­ways known that a drone strike could kill him at any minute and had de­cen­tralised the or­gan­i­sa­tion of ISIS so that it could func­tion with­out him.

Like Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, he re­fused to com­mu­ni­cate by mo­bile phone or any other track­able de­vice, cut­ting him­self off from day-to-day op­er­a­tions. While US of­fi­cials are us­ing ma­te­rial gath­ered at his hide­out to pur­sue other ISIS com­man­ders – a day af­ter his cap­ture, a sec­ond airstrike killed ISIS spokesman Abu Has­san Al Muha­jir – they are un­likely to have un­cov­ered an in­tel­li­gence “trea­sure trove”.

Nonethe­less, the man tipped as ISIS’s next leader – Ab­dul­lah Qar­dash, a for­mer Baathist army of­fi­cer, who spent time with Al Bagh­dadi in a US-run jail in Iraq – will find him a hard act to live up to.

So what was it that made him so ca­pa­ble? Af­ter all, when Al Bagh­dadi took over ISIS’s pre­de­ces­sor or­gan­i­sa­tion in 2010, Al Qaeda in Iraq, it was in dis­ar­ray, dec­i­mated by coali­tion op­er­a­tions and dis­en­fran­chised by the Sunni Awak­en­ing in Iraq, in which tribal lead­ers who had for­merly fought the US aligned them­selves with their for­mer foes to bat­tle the likes of Al Qaeda.

One ad­van­tage, says Michael Knights, of the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, was Al Bagh­dadi’s back­ground. As an Iraqi-born Is­lamic scholar, he had good stand­ing in both of the key in­sur­gent net­works that fused to form ISIS – the Iraqi na­tion­al­ists, drawn mainly from the se­cu­rity wings of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Baath regime, and the hard­line ji­hadists. That gave him more ap­peal than pre­de­ces­sors like Abu Musab Al Zar­qawi, a Jor­da­nian-born ex-con­vict.

Be­fore Al Bagh­dadi, the lead­ers of Al Qaeda in Iraq tended to be ei­ther for­eign­ers or “low­brow guys” such as Al Zar­qawi, whereas the ISIS leader had re­li­gious train­ing and was known lo­cally, ac­cord­ing to Dr Knights. He also had strong or­gan­i­sa­tional skills but was con­tent to del­e­gate au­thor­ity – one of the rea­sons why he lasted. An early ex­am­ple of that prow­ess was in 2013, when his fol­low­ers staged a mass jail break from Bagh­dad’s Abu Ghraib prison, spring­ing 500 fel­low ex­trem­ists from one of the most heav­ily guarded pris­ons on the planet. He could pull these jobs off be­cause half his lieu­tenants were for­mer Baathist in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, who knew Iraq well. Lack­ing Bin Laden’s charisma or Al Zar­qawi’s ego, he avoided video­taped ad­dresses glo­ri­fy­ing his suc­cess. That merely fu­elled his mys­tique. While Bin Laden, preach­ing from re­mote caves, looked like a faded rock star, Al Bagh­dadi came across as a man of deeds, not words. Com­rades spoke of a leader who was not afraid to show up on the front­lines, yet also cared for their wel­fare. He was said to veto op­er­a­tions that car­ried too much risk.

As head of the so-called caliphate, Al Bagh­dadi left that cau­tion be­hind him. Had he not sanc­tioned the pub­lic be­head­ings of US hostages, Amer­ica might never have launched all­out war and his do­main might well re­main to­day. The real ques­tion now, though, is whether he will con­tinue to in­spire peo­ple from be­yond the grave.

Although the UN es­ti­mates up to 30,000 for­eign ISIS fight­ers are still alive, the phys­i­cal ex­is­tence of the caliphate it­self was for many the key at­trac­tion, of­fer­ing se­cu­rity, brethren­ship, mar­riage and mar­tyr­dom.

With that now gone, many mis­fits and mal­con­tents who were drawn to ISIS will lose in­ter­est: as bandwagon-jumpers, few will want to die for a cause that is no longer a win­ning team. Thou­sands of ISIS’s western fight­ers have al­ready re­turned home over the past three years. Had even a few heeded Al Bagh­dadi’s call to carry out lone-wolf strikes, the West would have wit­nessed far more ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

For the hard­core, ISIS of­fers other com­bat the­atres, but none where it has turf of its own. In Libya, it lost its strong­hold in Sirte in 2016. In Afghanista­n, it is over­shad­owed by the ri­val Tal­iban. In Si­nai prov­ince, it is re­stricted to hi­tand-runs on the Egyp­tian army. In Nige­ria, Boko Haram has pledged loy­alty but shows more in­ter­est in lo­cal griev­ances than ISIS’s transna­tional agenda. Nor, for the av­er­age Euro­pean ex­trem­ist, are these the­atres as easy to reach as the old caliphate, whose western bor­der was ac­ces­si­ble via visa-free travel to east­ern Turkey.

In­stead, many be­lieve ISIS’s best chances lie in a come­back in the very place where Al Bagh­dadi first formed it – the blood-soaked Sunni heart­lands of western and north­ern Iraq. Its fight­ers may be long gone from cities like Mo­sul but the griev­ances that first gave them footholds there re­main.

Two years on from Mo­sul’s lib­er­a­tion, 300,000 res­i­dents are still home­less. Far from help­ing the UN-led re­con­struc­tion ef­fort, lo­cal politi­cians stand ac­cused of block­ing projects that do not gen­er­ate kick­backs. Iraq teeters on a precipice again. At least 250 civil­ians have been killed this month dur­ing mass protests against govern­ment fail­ures. Eco­nomic hard­ship and cor­rup­tion are threat­en­ing to tip the coun­try into in­sta­bil­ity once again. Across the re­gion, pro-Ira­nian Shi­ite mili­tias such as the Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Forces, who helped in the bat­tle against ISIS, have be­gun fan­ning sec­tar­ian ten­sions.

Al­ready, ISIS cells are mount­ing guer­rilla at­tacks, de­nounc­ing the govern­ment and de­mand­ing pro­tec­tion money, just as they did be­fore seiz­ing Mo­sul. The con­test to win over one of Iraq’s most ne­glected and vo­latile re­gions is back on.

Few, though, think ISIS’s flag could fly there again soon. Robert Tol­last, a for­mer ad­viser to Iraq’s for­eign af­fairs min­istry, says the ter­ror­ist group stands lit­tle chance of re­group­ing. It is dis­liked by tribal lead­ers and there has been harsh col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment of com­mu­ni­ties sus­pected of col­lud­ing with them. “That is a hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion that feeds tribal ri­valry, but it shows how much sup­port they have lost,” he says.

Still, sim­i­lar things were said about ISIS’s pre­de­ces­sor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, which like­wise alien­ated peo­ple with its bru­tal­ity. Dr Knights agrees that short-term, ISIS is fin­ished, but fears it could re-seed among young­sters whose par­ents were fol­low­ers. Tens of thou­sands of ISIS “cubs” now lan­guish in camps like Al Hol in Kur­dish north-east Syria, where lo­cal guards can barely con­trol the in­mates. They have warned that US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­cent de­ci­sion to pull troops from the re­gion will make that task all but im­pos­si­ble.

In­deed, even if the camps were prop­erly se­cured, the chal­lenge of re-in­te­grat­ing so many trau­ma­tised, rad­i­calised chil­dren and teenagers from Al Hol and else­where is a daunt­ing one. Al Bagh­dadi might be gone but the prob­lem of stop­ping his cubs grow­ing into wolves is likely to re­main for decades to come.

Many be­lieve ISIS’s best chances lie in a come­back in Iraq


Abu Bakr Al Bagh­dadi died last week

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