Baghdadi Is Dead But His Legend Lives On
The leader of the Islamic State was finally killed—but not before he became the most important terrorist in recent history.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was never able to match the spectacle of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, but his legacy as a jihadi may equal or outshine Osama bin Laden’s. In spring 2010, he became the leader of what was then called the Islamic State of Iraq, after 34 of its top 42 leaders had been killed or captured. Over the next several years, under Baghdadi’s leadership, the group became the most important jihadi organization in the world, surpassing its former partner al Qaeda.
His influence surged in late June 2014, when the group’s official spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announced that it had resurrected the caliphate. It was a goal that the international jihadi movement had aimed to achieve since its inception decades ago. Baghdadi managed to turn that dream into reality. It’s an achievement that will inspire future jihadis for generations—likely more than the accomplishments of any of his jihadi contemporaries. Would-be jihadis can now point to a caliphate project that was achieved in their lifetimes.
Soon after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended to become the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, he continued the organizational ethos of his predecessor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, by not being omnipresent in its propaganda. This contrasts with the synonymy between bin Laden and the al Qaeda brand. In the nine and a half years that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and then later the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and the Islamic State, he only appeared twice on camera. The first was in July 2014, when he accepted the role as caliph. The second was more recently—this April, following the Islamic State’s loss of territory—to show that he was still involved in the day-to-day leadership of the organization. In total, he only issued 14 public messages. This all serve the Islamic State movement’s idealism—the sense that it is singularly committed to its ideas, above all the caliphate project.
Similarly—in contrast to al Qaeda, which sought to focus on a hearts and minds strategy following the atrocities committed during the Iraq jihad from 2003 to 2009—Baghdadi and the Islamic State believed that the group needed to be even more uncompromising with its enemies. This explains the group’s monopolizing and totalitarian strategy when it reemerged as a relevant force between 2012 and 2014. As self-effacing as Baghdadi was in public, he was ruthless in private. He oversaw the group while it committed the Speicher massacre against Iraqi Shiites, the Shaitat massacre of Syrian Sunni tribesmen, and the sexual enslavement of Yezidis and genocide against its male population. In addition to the group’s abuses against local populations, Baghdadi was also responsible for the beheading campaign against Western and Japanese journalists and humanitarian workers as well as the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Baghdadi also personally raped and tortured the American human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker Kayla Mueller. Countless others under Baghdadi’s rule were subjected to daily emotional and physical abuse by his followers.
Baghdadi, unlike the founder of the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was able to break free of al Qaeda’s monopoly as the unipolar leader of the global jihadi movement post-9/11. Baghdadi was able to create his own competitor global network of jihadi organizations. Not long after Baghdadi’s April 2013 announcement that his group was officially moving into Syria, he rebuked al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for attempting to persuade the Islamic State to remain only in Iraq and leave Syria to the Nusra Front, then al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. In Baghdadi’s retort, he said the Islamic State would remain in Syria and would not adhere to a division based on the Sykes-Picot deal dating to World War I: “We were given a choice, either obeying God’s orders or disobeying them. … I chose to abide by God’s orders.”
Since that time, Baghdadi exported carbon copies of his organizational infrastructure to various locales. In contrast to al Qaeda, which had organizational branches, the Islamic State would structure itself via a series of so-called wilayat (provinces) that followed the same methodology. Besides Iraq, the Islamic State now claims to have wilayat in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Chechnya, Mali, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and Turkey, as well as undeclared wilayat in Bangladesh and Tunisia. This growth highlights the popularity that the Islamic State has garnered worldwide through its commitment to build its caliphate. This global ideological reach also helps explain why it was able to attract unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters to join its group in Iraq and Syria between 2013 and 2016, as well as recruit foreign fighters to other places such as its fronts in Libya, Sinai, Nigeria, Mali, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.
As a consequence, Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to cause major disruption to the organization in the short term. That’s especially true because the group has had a plan for how to survive its loss of territory going back at least three years, drawing on lessons from its setbacks in the period from 2007 to 2009. Considering the Islamic State’s core in Iraq and Syria is far stronger now—even after its recent territorial loss—than its predecessor group had been following the tribal awakening and U.S. surge of troops, the group is in a strong position to survive Baghdadi’s death. Indeed, when Baghdadi first announced that he became the leader in 2010, hardly anyone outside the group’s leadership circles even knew who he was. Instead, much of the Islamic State’s media has focused on foot soldiers, average members, and day-to-day life under the Islamic State when it controlled territory.
Thus, even if the next leader of the Islamic State is also a relative unknown, that’s unlikely to hinder his effectiveness. The group has also always been more embedded locally in Iraq and Syria than al Qaeda had been in its home bases of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This suggests that the Islamic State will likely be more resilient and have a greater reservoir for recruitment and future leaders than al Qaeda ever had once its original leadership in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region became degraded.
But, whatever the future holds for the Islamic State and its next leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s legacy is clear. He has joined the Mount Rushmore of jihadism, alongside Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a visiting research scholar at Brandeis University. He is the founder of the widely cited website Jihadology and the author of the forthcoming book Your Sons Are At Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad.