The next Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is already out there. Killing the ISIS leader is an impressive US achievement, but it will not terminate the brand of radical Islam that he represented.
Al-Baghdadi was certainly a proficient terror organizer and promoter. However, in building the ISIS brand he tapped into deeply rooted extremism that abhors Western values and the failure of Arab nationalism to remedy the Muslim world’s ills. These sentiments will continue to resonate after his death, in the Middle East and beyond.
Moreover, the decentralized model offered by ISIS ensures its continued survival, regardless of the shape it takes next. The organization has many field operatives and sleeper cells in place and is further boosted by the support of millions of sympathizers. Its vision of an Islamic state will continue to appeal to disenchanted youngsters in developing countries, and in the West.
It is enough to recall another terror mastermind, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to realize that the killing of Al-Baghdadi will likely make little difference in the long run. Al-Zarqawi terrorized the Middle East in the previous decade as the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, before US forces assassinated him. His elimination merely paved the way for the emergence of ISIS and even greater brutalities.
Europeans Fear Revenge Attacks
Israelis know all too well that the elimination of terror leaders does not end terrorism. In 1992, Israeli gunships ambushed then-Hezbollah chief Abbas Musawi and killed him and his family in a hail of missiles. His successor, Hasan Nasrallah, proved to be an even more capable foe.
Over the years, Israel also assassinated senior Hamas figures, including spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, master bombmaker Yahya Ayyash, and military chief Ahmed Jabari. A replacement always emerged and any decline in terror was temporary. In the case of Ayyash, Hamas took vengeance by carrying out a string of deadly bombings.
Europeans now fear similar retaliation for the killing of Al-Baghdadi. Earlier this year, Britain’s MI5 investigated ISIS plans to launch attacks in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe.
It should be noted that the killing of terror leaders does have some positive effects. Persistent anti-terror efforts may produce short-lived deterrence and lead to a lull in attacks. Moreover, the threat of assassination forces terrorists to dedicate more time to personal survival, at the expense of other activities. However, eradicating terror groups and the ideology that fuels them is a more daunting challenge.
Meanwhile, ISIS has already designated a former Iraqi military officer, Abdullah Qardash, as Al-Baghdadi’s successor. The group will now have more motivation to carry out high-profile attacks to signal that it remains active. Regardless of any short-term setbacks, the radical philosophy and murderous intent it embodies are here to stay.