The assassination of Bin Laden was fatal for al-Qaeda, but Baghdadi’s death could breathe new life into Isis
Trump’s decision to deploy US forces to take over Syria’s oil fields and appropriate their output could rally support from both sides of the Iraq-Syria border to mount a campaign of resistance against this occupation
In May 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in a US Special Forces raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This dealt a fatal blow to al-Qaeda as a cohesive organisation. The Obama administration considered that to be one of its greatest achievements. But the organisation’s demise resulted in the emergence of a collection of successor groups, including two that proved to be even more potent and vicious: the Nusra Front in Syria and the Islamic State (Isis).
With this in mind, it is advisable to be wary of apparent successes like these. The same could happen again following the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during last week’s US Special Forces raid on his hideout in northwestern Syria. He reportedly blew himself up in an escape tunnel, using the suicide belt he always kept at hand to ensure he would never be captured alive.
There have been conflicting accounts of how, precisely, Baghdadi came to meet his grisly end.
One story is that he was tracked down to an isolated house near a village north of Idlib belonging to the leader of the Hurras ash-Sham (Guardians of Syria) Front, a local Isis affiliate, after a tip-off by a defector from the group.
But doubts have been cast on this version of events, not least by the Russians. Suspicions have also been raised in the Middle East by the US’s failure to provide evidence confirming Baghdadi’s death or release images of his body. How come, sceptics and conspiracy theorists wonder, while the Americans always film everything, and had no qualms about showing us the corpses of Saddam Hussein or his sons, we never saw those of bin Laden, his son Hamza, or Baghdadi? Why were they all disposed of at sea?
Another theory is that Baghdadi’s killing may have been engineered by his own senior lieutenants, the inner circle of Isis’s original founders, known internally as The Pilgrims, who constitute the leadership of its “deep state”. They supposedly blame Baghdadi for losing control of the organisation and allowing it to disintegrate after its military defeat, and decided he had to be removed and replaced by a new leadership capable of reuniting and rebuilding it.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the caliphate proclaimed by Baghdadi in his famous sermon at Mosul’s Grand Nouri Mosque in the summer of 2015 was not centred around an individual leader. It was based on a powerful ideology, an extreme form of Wahhabis, whose uncompromising nature enhanced its appeal for alienated Islamic youth, and managed to develop branches or franchises in at least 18 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It flourished in conditions of full or partial state failure in places like Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan the African Sahel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where the “state” established “provinces” in accordance with a strategy of expansion and co-option of existing jihadi groups.