The head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead. The man who led the state that called itself Islamic — first capturing Raqqa in Syria and then leading a blitzkrieg through Iraq, rampaging through Mosul, Tikrit, to the gates of Baghdad — is no more.
ISIS established a horrifying standard of brutality, re-establishing slavery, practicing what amounted to genocide against the Yazidis, carrying out mass executions and beheadings — all caught on camera — and demolishing religious sites and antiquities.
The United States, with the help of its coalition allies, Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), destroyed the Islamic State and killed Baghdadi.
ISIS, however, is far from finished. It operates in West Africa, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and has followers in Europe and elsewhere. That, in addition to as many as 18,000 fighters still on the loose between Syria and Iraq, according to a report issued by the Pentagon’s Inspector General in August.
There is no reason to conclude that the threat from ISIS’ far-flung network of affiliates and sympathizers has disappeared with the passing of Baghdadi. He may have excelled in his evil mission, but he was at the top of a pyramid of power and others will come forward to claim his mantle of leadership and perhaps learn from his demise.
Unlike Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who led al Qaeda in Iraq, Baghdadi maintained a low profile.
He appeared only once in public, in July 2014, when he delivered a sermon in Mosul’s Grand Mosque.
After that, ISIS’ al-Furqan media wing and social media accounts released sporadic audio messages purported to be from the ISIS leader. Then, earlier this year, another video resurfaced apparently showing Baghdadi sitting in casual clothes on the floor. He declared the “battle for Baghouz is over.”
Among the dozens of ISIS fighters and their wives and children CNN interviewed this spring during the battle of Baghouz, the group’s last stronghold, in eastern Syria, few mentioned the name of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The diehards, the ones who still remained loyal to the ideology of ISIS, stressed their allegiance to ad-Dawla al-Islamiya — the Islamic State, not to its leader.
Baghdadi never had a cult of personality. He did stress that he was a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad to burnish his Islamic credentials, but he never rose to the level of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, who was recognizable the world over.
Bin Laden first came to fame during the 1980s, when he led the so-called Arab mujahideen in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, from Sudan and then Afghanistan, he gave interviews to the Western media, including CNN, and even after the 9/11 attacks on the United States he issued statements and put out videos.
As khalifa, or caliph, of the Islamic State, Baghdadi never granted an interview to anyone. Yet in the end the Americans found him, and killed him, “whimpering, screaming and crying,” according to US President Donald Trump.
ISIS is not going to disappear. It may morph into something else, just as Osama bin Laden’s Arab mujahideen morphed into al Qaeda, which gave birth to al Qaeda in Iraq, which transformed into ISIS.
Regardless of what comes of ISIS, the terrain for extremist groups in the Middle East remains fertile. Authoritarian regimes here have developed a predictable template. They crush the political center by terrifying it into silence, by jailing anyone who calls for change, by killing or torturing opponents real or imagined, by co-opting others and driving the rest into exile.
What real opposition left is dominated by the most extreme and violent elements, their ranks often replenished by those who are able to emerge from the prisons and torture chambers in places like Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad and Riyadh.
As a result, the populace is faced with a stark choice: subdued, quiet acceptance of the authoritarian state and its inherent corruption, or siding with the extremists. In the end, the former usually happens.
The West, particularly the United States, still pays lip service to democracy and human rights, but it too for decades has fallen into the same trap. As distasteful as some of its Middle Eastern allies are, the thinking goes, they’re preferable to the extremists.
And unless and until the dictator’s template is smashed, new Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis will emerge.