What will happen after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death? The new Virtual Caliphate and its implications

By all accounts the Islamic State is on track to lose the majority of its real estate in Iraq and Syria by the end of this year. That will be cause for celebrations, but it will not mean that the goal of eradicating ISIS has been achieved.

ISIS has prepared its fan-followers for months with the line that losing territories will not threaten the Caliphate, which in the meantime will be busy acquiring other properties in South Asia or elsewhere. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the end for the ISIS in Mosul recently. The coalition forces with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are surrounding the capital of ISIS, Raqqa, for a decisive battle most probably in the next five months.

But ISIS is good at restructuring. It already has moved many of its senior commanders towards Deir ez-Zor, a Syrian city near the Iraqi border and is making preparations to retreat to it when Raqqa succumbs. ISIS eventually will drop from conventional military style and revert to insurgency. The terrorists will blend into the local populations, forcing the coalition forces to risk heavy losses in ground operations. When times get really hard for them, they will allow their hundreds of foreign fighters to take the war back to their home countries or to other ISIS -controlled territories in South Asia and Northern Africa.

At this point ISIS likely will announce the “Virtual Caliphate,” an invisible death ship hovering in the net sphere and raining death through self-directed terrorists all over the world while promising that the “State” will return to rule territory again. 

In the meantime, ISIS will lose several of its senior leaders, most probably Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (if he wasn’t killed by a Russian airstrike three weeks ago, or if he wasn’t already killed based on some recent local reports) and some of his deputies. But no terrorist leader is irreplaceable.

True, thousands of fighters will be lost and ISIS prestige may take a minor turn downward but its recruitment machine will churn out cannon fodder for suicide as the citizens of the West will resolve to live with its terror for generations.

But the Virtual Caliphate can be defeated. Its virulence derives from its belief system, which the U.S. national security team in Washington is committed to defeat. To counter ISIS in the West after Raqqa goes down, we need to be able to stop the spread of its ideology and recruitment activities in the West.

The strategy for subverting terror will differ between the Muslim-majority countries and the nations of the West where Muslims are in the minority. In the Muslim majority countries, before ideological warfare can succeed, authorities must stabilize the region, neutralize the sectarian conflicts, stop displacing people internally and create more jobs. The Coalition is gradually getting this done in Iraq. Without stability, the Salafists will always recruit terrorists looking for a way out of misery.

To defeat Salafist ideology among the True Believers in Europe and parts of the Russian Federation will require labor-intensive police work and citizen activists with powers of moral suasion. The foreign fighters are among the most committed members of ISIS and form the core of the terrorist organization. Most of the European fighters fall into this category.

The top three steps for government leaders and citizen activists working as a team are these.

First, suppress the source of hateful ideology, Wahhabism. Give the Saudi government more incentives to quash the funding of Salafism through the charitable giving of its wealthy princes and religious nonprofits. As even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in an email picked up by WikiLeaks two years ago, “Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funding ISIS.”  Clinton never denied she wrote it.

Second, the police forces of each European nation that contributed recruits to the Syrian ISIS war machine must vigorously track, monitor and isolate its citizens who have returned from suspicious sojourns in the Middle East. These individuals are prone to be ISIS recruiters. In addition, monitor and interdict the meeting points of jihadists. The jihadists recruit from bookstores, fraternal organizations and cultural groups with seemingly benign titles. These organizations must be closely watched. 

Third, the recruitment supply train must be interdicted at the most basic level with face-to-face recruitment of potential terrorists. In my experience as a counterterrorism chief, academician and debriefing more than 50 defectors from ISIS, I found that most of the recruitment happens face to face, even if it might have started in the cyberspace. The work of refuting false ideologies and winning trust is a task better known to missionaries than to bureaucrats, but engagement at the most basic level is the challenge ahead. 

The teachers, clerics, and mentors who can do this work are waiting to be asked – and employed. As one Christian pastor once remarked, “for every Goliath, a David has been prepared.”

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.
Ahmet S. Yayla is an assistant professor at the DeSales University Homeland Security Department and faculty member at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. He is also a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Dr. Yayla previously served as a full professor and the chair of the Department of Sociology at Harran University in Turkey. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013.