Hours after Iraq declared victory in Mosul—the twin capital of the so-called Islamic State and its largest stronghold—and had retaken the city from the clutches of jihadists, rumours of the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the chief of the ISIS terrorist group, resurfaced once again. Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the ISIS, which seized parts of Iraq and Syria to declare a Caliphate and inspired major terror attacks in Western countries in the name of Islam, has been declared dead multiple times before. This time the confirmation came from the Syria-based independent human rights monitoring agency, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), and a local Iraqi news outlet Al-Sumaria. The ISIS which always claims credit for its attacks and announces death of its members/commanders as ‘martyrs’ through its media channels has maintained a stoic silence.
The UK-based SOHR on Tuesday announced it had information from high-level commanders of the IS confirming his death. “Confirmed information for the #SOHR about the death [of] Abu Bakr #Baghdadi the “Amir of the #IslamicState organisation,” it tweeted. A report in Al-Sumaria news, an Iraqi satellite network, was the other source to confirm the report quoting a local source saying IS made a brief statement on the death in the town of Tal Afar—west of Mosul. There was no information on how he died or under what conditions.
Dead, not dead
The Iraqi government or the US which is leading an international coalition in its fight against IS has no verified information either. “We cannot confirm this report, but hope it is true. We strongly advice ISIS to implement a strong line of succession, it will be needed,” the public affairs office of the Combined Joint Task Force said in jest. Last month, the Russian defence ministry and Iranian officials said with confidence that Al-Baghdadi was killed in an airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa.
The daily news reports released by official ISIS sources made no reference to Al-Baghdadi’s death or whereabouts. The groups’ supporters on social media blamed the report as a fake news and a conspiracy hatched by the Shia community to ‘gain moral victory and create confusion’ among the followers in Iraq and Syria.
Losing the Caliphate territory
Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city—is inhabited by the Sunni community. The fight to defeat the IS in Iraq is led by the Iraqi Army, made of largely Shia troops. As the eight-month-long military offensive entered its final phase to liberate Mosul, tensions have escalated between the armed forces and fleeing civilians who are looked upon as ‘collaborators with Daesh’.
The unverified reports of his death come at a time ISIS is rapidly losing the territory under its control in both Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi forces in coalition with US troops following the eight-month-long ground offensive were able to drive out ISIS jihadists, albeit at the high cost of devastating destruction of Mosul, death of over 700 officers and displacement of thousands of civilians.
The significance of losing Mosul is high for the group as it was here three years ago in July 2014, that Al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance, standing on the pedestal in the Great Mosque of al Nouri announcing the establishment of the new Caliphate. The mosque with its defining leaning minaret was blown by ISIS last month as forces advanced towards it.
In Syria, where ISIS declared Raqqa as its capital, is being pounded by Syria’s pro-government forces and Russian airstrikes. Parts of it are still contested and ISIS has moved its capital to the eastern province of Deir ez Zoir.
The Modern Age Caliph
If the news of Al-Baghdadi’s death is confirmed, it will be a further loss to the ISIS in addition to losing its ground and killings of prominent ISIS leaders. Al-Baghdadi earned his credentials by not simply being a gun-wielding terrorist. He is credited for his sharp military acumen and knowledge of Islamic theocracy, which has been a combined reason for ISIS’s success as the only transnational jihadi group to hold territory and establish its rule. The 46-year-old Iraqi leader with a US $25 million bounty on his head has completed his PhD in Islamic Studies. He belongs to the Qurayash tribe—in which Prophet Mohammad was born in and traditionally, the Caliph is chosen from.
It is reported that the group’s central command—Shura Council—has already named the potential successor, Abu Hasaf, in case of Al-Baghdadi’s death, to lead as Caliph. Whether he can maintain the Caliphate, wield control over the group, its activities in the West and replace the charisma of Al-Baghdadi will be a matter of time. One thing is sure that the death of Al-Baghdadi will not mean the end of the ISIS, which has carefully exported its operations and ideology in the West and East. Its nascent but formidable presence in territories like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and now Philippines only reconfirms that like Al Qaeda continued to prosper even after Osama bin Laden’s death, the ISIS too will regrettably live long after Al-Baghdadi.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @BeingBum.