Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the infamous leader of the Islamic State, has been killed several times over, depending on who you ask, but the reclusive leader may not be as important to the organization as some may think.
That’s because Baghdadi is not terribly special. He did not rise to his position due to high profile terrorist attacks like al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or through vicious violence like his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now deceased former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIS’s progenitor. Baghdadi achieved his status because he checked all the right boxes.
“ISIS has presented itself as sticklers about who can and cannot be caliph,” Graeme Wood, a journalist and political science lecturer at Yale University who has written extensively on ISIS, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. In his most recent book, “The Way of the Strangers,” Wood gets into the heads of ISIS adherents and supporters to figure out why they think the way they do. While ISIS is frequently denounced as un-Islamic, the group borrowed heavily from religious tradition when choosing a leader.
“It comes down to the guy has to be a free, male Muslim who is physically and mentally able and who has the capability of ruling according to God’s law,” said Wood. This means no impairments and no missing limbs, digits, or eyes.
The candidate must also be a descendant of the Quraysh, the tribe of the prophet Muhammad himself. Many career jihadis lose limbs or eyes at some point in their lives, and few are Qurayshi, but even so, the requirements are not overly stringent.
“The technical requirements are just technical, like the requirements that a POTUS [President of the United States] be 35+ years and a native-born citizen of the U.S.,” said Wood. “It’s not that tall an order to find such a person, so I don’t think the transition would be that cumbersome.”
Baghdadi might be easily replaceable, but that has not stopped a multitude of actors from trying to kill him, or claim that he has died.
The most recent claim came from Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Monday after the group “confirmed” the terrorist leader’s death, citing “top tier commanders” from ISIS. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve coalition currently fighting ISIS, told reporters on Tuesday that he had no information on Baghdadi’s status.
Russia claimed to have killed Baghdadi during an air strike in May, but has yet to provide any proof. Various other outlets and organizations have also claimed he is dead, but no one appears to know for sure.
Coalition forces have done their best to eradicate the ISIS leader since beginning operations in 2015, but even his general location is a mystery.
“We’ve heard all kinds of reporting. Quite honestly, I hope he’s deader than a door nail. As soon as we find out where he is, he will be,” said Townshend.
He made clear he does not know if Baghdadi is dead or alive, but noted that if he is, the terrorist group has continued to function without him.
“So if he is dead, that means someone’s running ISIS. And I think that they’re trying to keep his death quiet for their own morale,” said Townshend.
The general explained that each time a top ISIS leader is killed, he is replaced by someone else. He speculated that killing Baghdadi would be a morale blow to ISIS and a boost to the coalition forces but would likely not have a major effect on the enemy’s ability to function.
“I think it would be a blow to the enemy’s morale. It would probably uplift our partners. So in that way, I think it probably does matter,” said Townshend. “As far as the prosecution of the enemy’s plans, I’m not so sure that it does matter. I mean, they’re like any bureaucratic organization, to include our own forces. We have a succession of command. They have a succession of command. And I think they would implement it.”
Replaceable as he may be, Wood also concluded that killing Baghdadi would represent a major blow to ISIS’s already beleaguered morale. After all, the terrorist leader is still the first legitimate caliph in ISIS’s eyes in 800 years.
“That said, ISIS has explicitly said that they will just replace him if he dies,” said Wood. “He’s just a guy.”
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