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Benjamin Allison: Killing Baghdadi not defeat of ISIS

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AP
The late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, shown in April.

On the night of Oct. 26-27, the caliph (commander) of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died in a U.S. raid on his compound in Idlib, Syria.

The leader of the deadliest terrorist group in history is dead. Now what?

For months, experts have warned against the notion that the Islamic State is “defeated,” despite President Trump’s claims to the contrary. Baghdadi’s death, while a pivotal moment in the fight against ISIS, is not a harbinger of the group’s demise.

First, this is not the first time the group has lost its leader. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), died in an F-16 strike in June 2006, but it did not cause his organization to crumble. Instead, AQI continued its bloody campaign until it was suppressed by the combination of the American “surge” and (mostly) the Sunni awakening, in which Sunni tribes turned against AQI, pushing the group underground for a time.

The deaths of Zarqawi’s successors put Baghdadi in power. Indeed, this is one of the greatest dangers of “leadership decapitation” operations: They can put more radical or effective leaders in power, especially when a group has a “deep bench.” This necessitates killing not only individual leaders, but also mid-level managers in the group. Fortunately, the United States seems to be pursuing this strategy. Even if Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, proves competent, his ability to control and inspire his followers will be severely constrained by the desire to avoid exposure.

Second, the Islamic State still retains thousands of adherents. Refugee camps are full of thousands of ISIS loyalists, and are considered breeding grounds for the next generation of jihadists. Indeed, women devotees of ISIS have set up their own sort of caliphate within a camp in Syria, imposing sharia law. Additionally, ISIS affiliates, especially in Afghanistan and West Africa, still enjoy success, indicating that the Islamic State is not going away anytime soon, although the core group may splinter. Time will tell whether al-Hashimi has what it takes to maintain cohesion in the group.

Finally, the United States’ abandonment of its allies in the region — especially the Kurds — gives the Islamic State room to recuperate. Just as President Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011 set the stage for ISIS’s emergence, Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from Syria gives IS a new lease on life. The continued American presence in neighboring Iraq will provide some stability, but this hands-off strategy will likely fail to prevent the group’s resurrection.

While the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a watershed moment, the group is far from vanquished. Not only does the organization’s history tell us it can adapt to shocks and re-emerge stronger than previous iterations, but the continued capacity of its affiliates and the passion of its adherents indicate that it can still threaten weak governments. The drastic downgrade in American involvement in Syria also augurs poorly for keeping the organization down. Continued military operations and deradicalization programs will prove critical in preventing the rise of another iteration of the group from the ashes of Baghdadi’s caliphate.

Benjamin Allison is a master’s candidate in the Kent State University Department of History, where he specializes in U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. He is the lead author of a forthcoming book on violence in jihadist insurgencies.

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