Russian claims to have killed ISIS leader Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi (the self-styled “Caliph Ibrahim”) in an air strike in May would be a devastating blow to the organisation if true.
The core part of ISIS’s attraction to that part of the worldwide Muslim community which is attracted to violent Jihadism is that it claims to be the ‘Islamic State’ and that its leader is the Caliph.
Westerners in my experience do not fully understand the colossal implications of this claim.
The key point to understand is that Islam is supposed to form a single community of Muslims accepting the authority of a single political and military leader who in his political and military role stands in succession to the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims are not supposed to be divided from each other in separate states, and in the first centuries of Islam the idea of such a division was fiercely resisted. The political leader of the Islamic community – the Caliph (Khalifat Rasul Allah – ‘Successor to the Messenger of God’ ) – did not have a religious or doctrinal role like that of a Catholic Pope or like the Prophet Muhammad himself. However as the successor of the Prophet Muhammad as the political and military leader of the Muslim community all Muslims were subordinate to him, and in the first centuries of Islam that was the actual political reality, with all Muslims united in a single political entity known to history as ‘the Caliphate’.
The united Caliphate disintegrated in the early middle ages, though Sunni Muslims continued to accept the nominal authority of a line of Caliphs of the Abbasid family based first in Baghdad and later in Cairo. The last Abbasid Caliph was captured by the Ottoman Turks in the early sixteenth century when he supposedly transferred his authority to the Ottoman Sultan. However contrary to what is sometimes said the Ottoman Sultans downplayed their claim to be the Caliphs of Islam until the claim was forcefully revived by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the late nineteenth century. The last Ottoman Sultan however abdicated in 1922, and in 1924 the new Turkish republic led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk formally abolished the Caliphate.
It has been a central goal of Jihadi movements ever since to restore the Caliphate, and by proclaiming himself Caliph ISIS’s leader Al-Baghdadi not only purported to do this but in effect also declared himself the leader of all true Muslims everywhere – with any Muslim who rejected his authority an apostate deserving death – whilst at a stroke declaring all other Muslim governments illegitimate.
It was on the strength of Al-Baghdadi’s proclamation of himself as the Caliph that ISIS was able to declare itself “the Islamic State’, thereby overshadowing its Jihadi rival Al-Qaeda and attracting tens of thousands of fanatical followers to itself.
If Al-Baghdadi has indeed been killed faith in all of this will be severely shaken and might collapse.
No Caliph in the history of the Caliphate has been killed in this way – by a bomb or missile launched by a “Christian” or “crusader” aircraft – and though plenty of Caliphs were murdered during the history of the Caliphate (mainly in court intrigues and often by their bodyguards) the fact of Al-Baghdadi’s death and the manner of it is bound to shake belief in his having been the Caliph at all.
It is also problematic who ISIS would find to replace him, and whether any successor could plausibly claim to be the Caliph in succession to him, especially at a time when the territory under ISIS’s control is dramatically shrinking. However if Al-Baghdadi is really dead, and ISIS fails to name a successor to him as Caliph, then its claim to be the Islamic State will over time become unsustainable.
Having said this some words of caution are in order.
Al-Baghdadi’s death has not been confirmed, and the Russian claim so far is only tentative. The BBC is reporting that ‘chatter’ on Jihadi websites – usually a strong indicator that some important Jihadi figure has been killed – is muted, though that could be more an indication of the lengths ISIS is taking to conceal news of Al-Baghdadi’s death rather than a sign that the news is untrue.
Perhaps a stronger sign that Al-Baghdadi is alive is that there has so far been no visible weakening of ISIS’s resolve. Though ISIS is everywhere in retreat, its fighters continue to put up a passionate resistance in Mosul, it continues its efforts to storm Deir Ezzor, and its well-oiled propaganda machine, complete with its slick ‘news agency’ Amaq, functions much as before.
That suggests that the central leadership of ISIS is continuing to operate as normal, whereas one would expect if Al-Baghdadi were dead that some signs of disruption would be visible.
Despite the relatively muted response to the Russian claim on Jihadi websites, if Al-Baghdadi is alive I expect ISIS to take steps to confirm that shortly.
Al-Baghdadi himself has not been heard or seen of since November and a statement or a broadcast from him is overdue.
We should have a clearer picture of what has happened to him over the next few days.