These sources reveal a knowledgeable, experienced, diplomatic, connected and fortunate leader with important religious credentials and strategic personal connections his organization relies upon. This article will argue that his removal from power, whether through capture or death, will be an important step in dissolving the terrorist organization by calling into question the organization’s religious legitimacy and strategic network.
What, to begin, is the Islamic State? IS is a self-proclaimed caliphate born in 2006 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda. In 2013, it was expelled from al-Qaeda for being too extreme (the leadership, hitherto, thinks controlling territory is a step too far for its organization). We can best understand the Islamic State through two lenses: religious and political.
First, IS resembles many characteristics of a religious entity. In its territory, Islamic prayer and other religious practices are routinely held. IS also justifies and legitimizes its actions, such as beheading apostates and Christians, through Islamic teaching . And, certainly by namesake, the Islamic State claims to be a religious entity. On the other hand, IS resembles a political entity. The presence of political institutions, and interests in upholding (Islamic) rule of law, conducting trade, managing taxes and fighting jihad, among other things, show the political dimension of the organization. So, too, does the existence of territory administered by the organization.
In this way the Islamic State differs from other terrorist organizations. Of course, all terrorist organizations have some sort of political apparatus, however, the degree of development in its political elements, such as a sophisticated police force, show just how much the Islamic State can be seen as a political entity. And, it is because of this fact that IS is unique among its contemporaries and, consequently, in a position to weaken from the diminishment of these political elements. Al-Baghdadi is at the center of the Islamic State and the head of this political dimension. Of course, it should be noted that a proper definition of the Islamic State requires extensive exploration in its own right, something outside the scope of this article. Nevertheless, a basic understanding of the organization’s political dimension helps to show how al-Baghdadi’s removal from power will help dissolve the terrorist organization.
First, al-Baghdadi’s religious credentials bolster IS’s religious legitimacy and is relied upon for recruitment purposes and the morale of soldiers and citizens. Al-Baghdadi, throughout his life, has been involved in Islamic theology. He has lead local prayers in Tobchi, a neighborhood of Baghdad, and graduated from Saddam University with a doctorate in Qur’anic Studies. These religious credentials remain unrivalled by many within the Islamic State. They also demonstrate al-Baghdadi’s knowledge of Islam, which, within a religious organization like IS, qualify him for top political leadership and, by extension, also bolster IS’s religious credibility among potential recruits and soldiers across the globe. Al-Baghdadi’s family lineage similarly qualifies him for political leadership and bolsters IS’s religious credibility: His family is said to directly descend from the prophet Muhammad. Of course, the Islamic State’s religious credibility does not rest solely on al-Baghdadi personally, however, his knowledge helps guide IS religious thought and its translation into politics and recruitment. If al-Baghdadi is removed from power, an important source of religious knowledge and Islamic prestige will be lost. This, in turn, may call into question the organization’s religious credentials and potentially damage recruitment efforts and morale.
Second, the Islamic State’s strategic connections, networks and support among local populations are vital to maintaining control over Iraq and Syria. Aside from major regional centers such as Raqqa and Mosul, much of IS ‘territory’ is not administered directly. A large part is administered by local actors connected to IS. In other words, IS relies on external actors and indirectly controls parts of its territory. These actors cooperate with the Islamic State for many reasons, notably, disenfranchisement with governments, discriminatory treatment and poor governance. These connections, furthermore, were also developed by al-Baghdadi himself during his time in Camp Bucca and through contacts allied with his family. Many strategic connections IS relies on are thus not related to the organization directly, but to al-Baghdadi personally and for reasons other an adherence to ultra-conservative Islam. In al-Baghdadi’s absence, the durability of these vital connections is uncertain, especially if al-Baghdadi’s successor is unable to maintain IS’s networks (as we see in al-Qaeda with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s lackluster successor). This is especially true among IS’s more secular actors who ally with the organization for reasons other than religion.
Pundits, however, argue that al-Baghdadi’s role within the Islamic State is exaggerated. The organization’s leadership has been decentralized precisely to minimize the impact one person’s death would have on the organization. However, this thinking underestimates al-Baghdadi’s role within the Islamic State. It would be difficult to find a replacement who lends the organization the same religious credentials, family lineage and expertise. Additionally, political decentralization within IS overlooks the fact that many IS strategic connections are allied to al-Baghdadi personally and not directly with the organization. With al-Baghdadi gone, cooperation with these partners may not last, especially among their more secular allies. Political decentralization within IS leadership may lessen the impact the death one member has on the organization, however, al-Baghdadi’s religious credentials and personal connections would nonetheless be quite difficult to replace.
Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al-Badri rose from local soccer stardom in Badri to world’s most notorious international terrorist. Changing his name to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and leading the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi’s religious credentials and strategic connections continue to play a vital role in IS’s continued existence. His absence will be an important step in dissolving the organization.