Yesterday U.S President Donald Trump declared leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dead as a result of a U.S military raid of a house he was hiding in Syria’s Idlib province. Certainly, this may be seen as a major (as he would like to say) “win” for Trump as he approaches a major election year where he looks to be re-elected against the backdrop of an impeachment inquiry and a rather tumultuous term as U.S president. The news comes as a major victory for the U.S security cluster, as it has been at the forefront of the global War on Terror (GWoT) for the past 18 years. In many ways, the death of al-Baghdadi is considered to be the biggest blow to the global jihadi movement since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 under the Obama administration, as the Islamic State has since overshadowed Al-Qaeda with its unique brand of grotesque violence and for a moment in time, the establishment of a Caliphate. However, in reality, what does this all mean for the Islamic State and its African affiliates? As I thrash out a couple of points, I think it would be important to do so while also comparing and contrasting the impact of this new development with the way Al-Qaeda as evolved following the death of bin Laden, and also how Al-Qaeda will likely respond in the wake of what is certainly a blow to the Islamic State.
In what’s widely considered to be a premature celebration of the Islamic State’s demise, analysts have painstakingly argued that decapitation strategies don’t work and to their credit there are plenty of examples where it simply hasn’t, as most terrorist organisations have long established successorship protocols as part of their survival strategy which ensures a continuous supply of leaders to replace those eliminated. However, the extent to which it doesn’t work looks quite different depending on the organisation in question. Take for example the Islamic State (previously known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq) which has lost two prior leaders, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, between 2004 and 2010. In its two-year infancy between 2004 and 2006, the loss of Zarqawi had a major impact on AQI resulting in the organisation becoming relatively inactive (GTD, 2019) before re-emerging under Omar al-Baghdadi between 2006 and 2010, however not quite to levels previously seen under Zarqawi and even for a while so under Bakr al-Baghdadi before the organisation’s sudden rise to prominence in 2014. During this period it wouldn’t be accurate to attribute the “performance” of the Islamic State directly to the change of leadership, as the organisation’s evolution is merely an amalgamation of both its leadership’s strategic shortcomings such as their proclivity towards sectarianism which at many times led to limitations in its operational capacity due to severe isolation, while on the other hand tactful opportunism in the midst of the Arab Spring which allowed the Islamic State to garner support in ungoverned conflict areas and construct convincing narratives around the socio-political situation in the Middle East. In essence the Islamic State has proven to be highly adaptive and opportunistic, which for the most part has nothing to do with its leadership and everything to do with the lifespan of the organisation and the environment in which it operates.
Oppositely, the death of bin Laden dealt a serious blow to Al-Qaeda which could be seen almost immediately, and in its case, I would argue it had more to do with its leadership’s ideological conundrum than external factors, although that too played an important role. But certainly, let’s face the fact that Al-Qaeda suffered the loss of a prominent jihadi veteran and major personality whose shoes Ayman Zawahiri had the unfortunate position of trying to fill-a rather impossible task. In addition, I explain in my previous article how Al-Qaeda’s leadership battled to remain ideologically consistent against the backdrop of major blunders which undermined its credibility to its followers and ideologically adjacent organisations which thought Zawahiri couldn’t “walk the talk”. This became a much larger problem when it became clear Zawahiri lost his ability to control its Iraqi affiliate which, in many ways, gained traction because it did “walk the talk” with the boldest move in jihadi history: the establishment of a Caliphate. Therefore, to a large extent, Al-Qaeda has suffered a crisis of leadership, which has paralyzed its ability to exploit the same opportunities the Islamic State capitalised on to its full potential and has therefore merely remained and worked on ways to rebrand and garner local support. So, does the death of al-Baghdadi mean the end of the Islamic State? No. Both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have proven to remain in existence despite successful decapitation operations, however the former has a proven track record of being highly adaptive and opportunistic. With three leaders down, none of which have served in their positions long enough to develop a cult of personality akin to bin Laden against a consistent background of defeat and re-emergence, the Islamic State is likely to remain in spite of recent developments.
My abovementioned conclusion has several implications for Islamic State affiliates in Africa, and once again, a comparison between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is important. Firstly, we must remember Africa has become the battleground on which the two terrorist organisations have sought to compete for prominence, as their affiliates are seen to be an extension of this rivalry. However, this does not negate the fact that African affiliates of both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are very much a product of their own local factors. Firstly, it’s quite clear Al-Qaeda began considering a branching out strategy in the wake of mounting pressure and threat of possible demise in the wake of the GWoT as U.S and local military forces killed many of its fighters and displaced its leadership. The growing nightmare of trying to control its Iraqi affiliate under Zarqawi perhaps made bin Laden quite sceptical of the idea of expanding further, unless perhaps it was an in-house operation (like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) as opposed to using existing local groups. Zawahiri thought differently, and was probably behind the organisation’s earliest ties to jihadi groups in other countries, which for the most part remained a secret. One such group was Al-Shabaab, which bin Laden avoided recognising publicly for fear of drawing counter-terrorism efforts upon a relatively young organisation (but also due to his reluctance in supporting Godane who was likely responsible for killing his preferred leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed). However, no sooner had bin Laden died, Zawahiri publicly accepted Al-Shabaab’s pledge of loyalty. Therefore, it’s quite clear expansion became Zawahiri’s organisational successorship strategy, as today the organisation can largely be viewed to have survived (or even thrived depending on your framework of analysis) through its affiliates as opposed through its senior leadership. Further indication that branching out is a strategy for a terrorist organisation beginning its descent was the Islamic State’s aggressive expansion campaign in Africa beginning in 2014 which saw pledges from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, the Sinai (which was accepted in just 3 days) and greater Sahel, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Somalia and Nigeria, all of which fall under four main affiliates known as the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) and the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP), almost all of which recently emerged from factions of terrorist organisations they were previously involved in. These affiliates were instrumental in developing counter-narratives regarding significant losses in Iraq and Syria, so the Islamic State could portray its weakness in one region insignificant as its affiliates continued to operate and instigate highly lethal attacks against local military forces, civilians and in some cases even Al-Qaeda affiliates.
With the presence of rival affiliates on the African continent, it could be said that Al-Qaeda’s cautious expansionist strategy demanded more strategic and ideological commitment from its affiliates than the Islamic State which was demonstrably desperate to create a distraction from its failures (to which emerging factions were only too happy to receive some form of legitimacy and prominence). As Al-Qaeda declined, many of its affiliates remained steadfast in their commitment to the organisation even in the face of the Islamic State during its best years where it called on Al-Qaeda affiliates to abandon their loyalty to Al-Qaeda and join them. Arguably, the relationship between Islamic State and its African affiliates can best be described as a marriage of convenience which may see many return to the (Al-Qaeda affiliated) organisations from which they came (if the option is available, as they are perceived to be traitors by their previous organisations and risk being killed) if the Islamic State continues on a downward trajectory. Certainly, this is an opportunity Al-Qaeda affiliates will be looking to exploit, an opportunity for Islamic State fighters to “redeem” themselves, which could be true not only in Africa but wherever else these rival terrorist organisations reside. On the other hand, due to the geostrategic location of Islamic State branches in North Africa, they are most likely to be the first to experience considerable changes within the Islamic State (in the same way they have been the largest beneficiaries of its strengths) compared to sub-Saharan affiliates. Not only has North Africa enjoyed the exchange of foreign fighters resulting in considerable network access, even to the Islamic State’s leadership and expertise, but also relied upon the Islamic State for weapons and other operational equipment. Arguably, North Africa is the second largest hub of Islamic State supporters from Iraq and Syria which could either see these branches least likely to defect back to Al-Qaeda affiliated organisations or the Islamic State leadership consider North Africa its new area of operations if Iraq and Syria continue to be inhabitable.
Another important point to consider is the reality that al-Baghdadi’s successor and his surrounding leadership must manoeuvre through the existing political complexities of African affiliate leaders and the environment in which they operate. Boko Haram is a rather interesting case study to consider in this regard, as the Islamic State appears to be highly involved in the selection of ISWAP’s leadership which saw Abu Musab al-Barnawi selected as its preferred candidate for the leadership of the organisation over Abubakar Shekau (resulting in a factional split between ISWAP and Boko Haram)…only for Barnawi to be replaced by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar Al Barnawi. Considering this history riddled with factional battles, whether the Islamic State’s downward trajectory will open an opportunity for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to court ISWAP under its leadership or lead Shekau to take it upon himself (or by instruction by Islamic State’s new leadership) to unify ISWAP under his leadership once again remains to be seen.
To conclude, the death of al-Baghdadi is least likely bring about the end of the Islamic State as perhaps the worst-case scenario for the terrorist organisation is if it were to remain relatively sedentary like Al-Qaeda in recent years thus making the latter a formidable competitor on the African continent. This appears to be the standard position of decapitated organisations attributing to the case that the counter-terrorism strategy doesn’t work. However, the reason for this cannot solely be ascribed to a change (or lack) of leadership for all terrorist organisations, as many factors influence the ability (or inability) of a terrorist organisation to re-emerge. That said, the strength of the relationship between the Islamic State and its African affiliates will play a critical role in its ability to maintain its existing affiliates, as with most of its affiliates, ties were hastily established and fickle in nature, leaving them considerably vulnerable to the possibility that Al-Qaeda affiliates present themselves as formidable alternatives. Certainly, we should pay attention to Islamic State branches in North Africa, as the region may be of greater geo-strategic importance to the Islamic State in the future than the current exchange of resources, particularly if Iraq and Syria become increasingly inhabitable as the group seeks new places in which to recuperate.