In 2016, the two scholars Haroro Ingram and Craig Whiteside argued in an article on War on the Rocksthat we should not try too hard to kill the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, they said, it would be better to leave him alive. Their view was that it would be wiser to leave al-Baghdadi as the caliph in charge of the demise of the group’s territorial caliphate, essentially positioning him as the authority in charge of its collapse and hopefully leaving him as an unpopular figure with little sway among group members and little ability to lead its resurgence. Well aware that this is an entirely theoretical discussion—if we obtain knowledge of al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts there is no chance that he will not be killed—I agreed with the authors at the time the article was published. But as the context has now changed I am increasingly convinced that we now have a strategic moment where indeed it would make sense to kill the caliph.
From an integrated to a fragmented group
In his book Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse, Paul Staniland introduces a four-pronged typology of network structures within rebel groups: integrated, parochial, vanguard, andfragmented. Integrated groups are characterized by strong horizontal and vertical networks ensuring strong internal cohesion. Strong unity among senior figures materializes in effective central institutions while the group enjoys a high level of local compliance. In parochial groups there is no strong unity between senior figures, but the group has strong local control despite the absence of effective institutions. A vanguard group is the opposite of a parochial group with strong unity among senior figures but little to no local control. Finally, a fragmented group suffers from a lack of unity between senior figures, an absence of effective central institutions, and little local control.
In the heyday of the Islamic State’s territorial control, the group could legitimately be considered an integrated group with unity among its leadership and with strong local embeddedness and compliance in most areas under its control. While it may be a stretch to claim that the Islamic State has already turned into a fragmented group, it is certainly on its way to doing so. This comes as a result of its rapidly decreasing local control and factionalization among figures on the highest organizational level. In addition, the linkages between senior figures on a global scale appear weak compared to those of al-Qaida, whose leaders have a shared history from Afghanistan or other battlefields. In groups where trust is essential, this is no minor issue.
Already in the early days of the caliphate, the Islamic State suffered from internal criticism and dissidence, but at the time it was mainly among fringe elements of the group and did not pose an immediate danger to group cohesion. In 2017, when the group’s decline was already well on its way, internal criticism intensified and eventually escalated to involve imprisonment and assassination of opposing figures. The ideological aspect of this division between what we can call a ‘moderate’ wing and an ‘extremist’ wing is already well-documented through the works in particular of Cole Bunzel (see here, here and here), Aymenn al-Tamimi (see here, here, here and here) and this author (see here and here). The actual impact of this internal conflict has received less thought though.
Divisions and fratricide: fighting the wrong enemy
Since 2017 the internal conflict has been building up and positions on each side have hardened. At the heart of the conflict lie differences regarding specific theological issues such as who should be considered apostates, but criticism has also concerned how the Islamic State handled its territorial demise. Both factions have attacked one another through their respective channels on the IT-platform Telegram, authored publications with the sole purpose of delegitimizing the opposing faction, leaked material from inside the group, and fought for control over central institutions and the support of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. More recently, senior figures of the ‘moderate’ wing have been imprisoned and, on some occasions, killed by coalition bombings during imprisonment. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the ‘moderate’ wing claim that the opposing faction is leaking the locations of these prisons to the coalition.
Whether such claims are true is hard to confirm, but in any case the internal conflict between the two factions has left deep wounds inside an already troubled organization. Instead of focusing on its main enemies, the Islamic State has wasted energy on an internal war, losing personnel and fueling group fragmentation at a time when cohesion is more important than ever. Questions are also being asked about the leadership of al-Baghdadi. Is he the one actually leading the group? And should he continue to do so?
In his latest video, al-Baghdadi the fighterattempts to cement his role as the leader of the group—a leader who is up-to-date on the situation in the Islamic State’s global provinces and who is indeed pulling the strings. Almost five years earlier, in his first appearance, al-Baghdadi the caliph said from the top of the al-Nuri mosque’s pulpit that “I was chosen to lead you, but I am not better than you. So if you find me to be right then help me, and if you find me to be wrong then advise me and make me right and obey me in what I obey Allah. If I disobey Him then there is no obedience to me”. Now, in 2019, it appears that at least two factions in the Islamic State consider al-Baghdadi ill-suited to be caliph. This was the message in a recent bookpublished by a senior figure in the ‘moderate’ wing, Abu Muhammad al-Hashimi, in which he urges supporters to revoke their pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi (it should be stated that al-Hashimi’s book received a lot of criticism from ordinary supporters of the Islamic State who initiated a campaign to renew bayah to al-Baghdadi (see examples here and here) and also from the extremists who despite sharing al-Hashimi’s disappointment with al-Baghdadi are more at odds with the ‘moderates’ (see here)).
Fragmentation and shifting power balances
Despite the question marks surrounding his leadership, al-Baghdadi for now remains the glue keeping the group together. If he were killed, a symbolic power vacuum would emerge and it is likely that the group would once and for all fracture and that tensions and infighting would escalate. Unlike in al-Qaida where Ayman al-Zawahiri was an easy pick as Bin Laden’s successor, there is no clear succession plan in the Islamic State. This is partly due to the death of most of the experienced senior leaders, but also a result of the internal tensions among those remaining. Hence it is hard to identify any existing leader to take over and immediately heal the wounds.
In fact, it could be speculated that the death of al-Baghdadi would result in a critical geographical shift in power balance within the group. Despite its origin in the Levant, a case could be made that a new caliph, or amir, should be found outside Syria and Iraq where certain provinces have intensified their military campaigns and thereby raised their global standing. While such a scenario remains unlikely, albeit not impossible, it would not only shift the group’s center of authority but also further aggravate its diminishing global cohesion.
According to Ingram and Whiteside, a splintering Islamic State group is not something we should wish for, however, as it could make the group even more ‘volatile and dangerous’. While it is true that splintering into several groups could result in new strategies and operational priorities, not to speak of increased irrational and undisciplined behavior, it will likely weaken the threat these actors pose. Such weakening will result from a combination of decreased capacity, the necessity to reconfigure the group, and the distraction that group splinters always entail. Just ask al-Qaida or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
There is always the risk that leadership decapitation offers the group a fresh start, and perhaps that is precisely what the Islamic State currently needs. But given the fragmented nature of its current network and authority structures, there is a much greater chance that the death of the caliph will lead to internal implosion and defections.