Nobody has been reported killed more often than the leader of the Islamic State (IS). But even if he were, it wouldn’t make that much difference.
Nobody has died as often — according to newspapers, agencies, television channels, and web outlets – as Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. Scarcely a month goes by without reports circulating that the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group and self-styled ‘Caliph’ has been killed or seriously injured in an airstrike by the 60-member coalition that has been busy bombing its twin capitals of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
On Sunday, the UN-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights run by Rami Abdurrahman, which is close to Western agencies as well as Syrian opposition groupings, reported that the IS is trying to find a replacement for Baghdadi. It said the group’s leaders in Iraq and Syria had been invited to a meeting to discuss the matter. It did not indicate where or when this was to be held.
In making its announcement, the Observatory had nothing to say about Baghdadi’s fate. Was he dead or still alive? But if his political and military lieutenants were being summoned to discuss replacing him, that could only mean one of two things: either the man has gone to meet his Maker, due to a missile strike or assassination attempt, or he has been removed from his post — hence IS leaders are meeting to choose a successor.
The IS news agency Aamaq categorically denied the report. It affirmed that Baghdadi is alive and denounced the Observatory’s report as a fabrication. The Observatory boasted that it had previously documented the killing of a number of IS military commanders, including Abu-Omar ash-Shishani, Abul-Haijaa al-Tunisi and Abu-Osama al-Iraqi. But their deaths did not need confirmation. The group has never hesitated to announce the deaths of its leading figures itself, for what it deems to be binding religious reasons.
The real question this raises is why talk of Baghdadi’s death is being revived now, at a time when the battle for Mosul is far from resolved despite being nearly into its third month.
It could be a matter of psychological warfare: announcing the death of the IS leader in order to undermine the morale of its fighters’ in Mosul, who appear in the view of many experts to have managed to blunt the offensive against them over the past two weeks.
The intention might also be to sow confusion and disaffection among IS fighters further afield – in Raqqa or other parts of Syria such as al-Bab and Idlib.
Alternatively, the report could be a ploy to get the IS leader to come out into the open in one way or another in order to prove he is still alive and disprove reports of his death. The thinking might be that this would provide information about his current whereabouts so he can be targeted later.
But even if Baghdadi were to be killed or assassinated, it is unlikely that would have too much of a negative effect on the organization. Its leadership is collective and does not pivot around its chief – unlike al-Qaida in the past, nor, indeed, its branch in Syria the Nusra (now Fateh ash-Sham) Front led by Abu-Muhammad al-Golani.
Moreover, ‘Caliph’ Baghdadi is not enamored with appearing in the media – either his own organization’s outlets or others’. He has only made two audio-visual appearances since he announced the establishment of his Caliphate two years ago from the pulpit of Grand Nouri Mosque in Mosul.
Nobody knows precisely where Baghdadi is at present – whether he is still in Mosul or Raqqa, has taken refuge in remoter parts of Iraq or Syria, or even moved elsewhere such as Libya, the African Sahel or Afghanistan.
Baghdadi will die sooner or later, and that can be expected to be reported by Aamaq. When and where that happens, God alone knows. Until then, we should, to paraphrase, beware that reports of his death may have been greatly exaggerated.
Abdel Bari Atwan