As the world waits to learn if ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead or alive following a U.S. led air raid in Mosul, Iraq, it’s not too early to ask: What if Baghdadi is actually dead? What will happen next?
Here’s what we know so far. Last Saturday, U.S. aircraft bombed a house in the town of al-Qaem in Anbar province, near the Iraqi-Syrian border where ISIS leaders were meeting. The ISIS governors of Anbar and Euphrates were killed in the attack, among other leaders.
On the same day, another air raid targeted a convoy in Mosul, killed 72 ISIS members and leaders, Maouris Milton said. Milton, a blogger from Mosul, described the raid as the most severe blow to ISIS since the beginning of the U.S. led campaign against the group three months ago.
Rumors circulated that Baghdadi was injured in that attack. Iraq’s ministries of defense and interior both issued statements saying that Baghdadi had been hit, and the new defense minister, who is also from Mosul said on his Facebook page that he is sure that Baghdadi was injured. An alleged Twitter account of ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani reported it as well, but the account is a fake.
However, the Iraqi authorities have said before that Baghdadi was killed or injured and it turned out not to be true. They also said many times that his predecessors, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayob al-Masri were killed or arrested. Again, those claims were not true. Iraqi officials finally acknowledged that they had lied when Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and al-Masri were really killed in April 2010.
When the first leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in June 2006, his body was recovered by U.S. forces. The bodies of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and al-Masri were recovered after they were killed in April 2010, and the U.S. also captured the body of Osama Bin Laden when he was killed in May 2011. Without Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s body, the world is waiting for ISIS to confirm or deny the news. That hasn’t happened.
Even so, there may be reason to think al-Baghdadi really has been injured or killed. ISIS has so far been strangely silence about the reports, posting nothing on its gigantic social media presence. Instead, ISIS released audio statements on Monday by five jihadist groups in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, and Algeria stating their allegiance to ISIS.
ISIS also organized a parade of teenagers with AK-47s in Mosul to celebrate this news and boost their members’ morale after three days of U.S. air raids that destroyed their training, storage, bomb making, prisons, and investigation locations.
As we wait for further word on Baghdadi, the question becomes, ‘What if he really has been killed?’ ‘What kind of blow would that represent to ISIS?’
With all the three of the leaders mentioned earlier, their deaths never were the end of their organizations. In almost each case, revenge attacks were launched. In this case, too, ISIS is likely to pick a new leader and continue its campaign of bloodshed and terror, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, a leading authority on the group.
Choosing a new leader would follow a set process involving ISIS’s existing leadership councils. The various councils are likely to look for a leader who meets specific military and religious criteria. He would need to be considered a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and be steeped in radical religious studies. Age would be a consideration, too. In theory, the new leader would have to be older than 15, but in practical terms, the older the better. ISIS would also look for someone with no mental illness and no physical or health problems.
ISIS’s second in command, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (whose given name is Fadhil al-Hiyali), is most likely to succeed Baghdadi, Hashimi said. Al-Turkmani is a former Iraqi army lieutenant colonel and Baghdadi’s current deputy in Iraq. Like Baghdadi, he spent some time at the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq. He was one of the main voices behind ISIS’s decision to defect from al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hashimi added.
Other candidates have been mentioned, too, and at least three other Iraqi leaders would be competing with al-Turkmani: his counterpart in Syria, Abu Ali al-Anbari, also a former Iraqi army officer; Abdullah al-Ani, ISIS theorist, a 51-year old engineer who wrote ISIS doctrine; and Younis al-Mashhadani, ISIS current head of the Shura council that advices al-Baghdadi.
“If any of those three are appointed, it would be likely to [result in] an ISIS-al-Qaeda merger,” said al-Hashimi.
No matter who the new leader might be, though, experts expect ISIS wouldn’t die even if its leader has.
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