On Friday, Russia’s defense ministry reported that the leader of the Islamic State, Ibrahim abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has been killed. Russia claims that the death comes along with at least 300 other IS militants during a conference in their capital at Raqqa.
Russia has still not yet confirmed this kill. And there has also been no statement from ISIS rebuking the claim. Yet, this would not be the first time someone has claimed to have killed the ISIS leader. The United States on multiple occasions has made that mistake.
So, who is (was) al Baghdadi? He was born near Samarra, Iraq, and holds Doctorate degrees in Islamic studies from Saddam University. He is reportedly a shy and reserved man, so much of his background is a mystery. He was a preacher during the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, and was actually arrested by US forces. Baghdadi was detained at the now infamous prison camp Abu Ghraib. But he was released in 2004 as a “low level” threat. These prison camps are where many future jihadists and leaders of ISIS would first conspire. Al Baghdadi rose to the throne of ISIS after the death of his predecessor Omar al Baghdadi.
The atrocities committed under his leadership are many to count here. But what does his death mean for the future of the Islamic State? Recently, the Islamic State is losing ground. And fast. Islamic State leadership has told supporters to stay in their home countries. “Sleeper cells” to be called upon to do their evil bidding. However this can also be framed as an acknowledgement by ISIS leadership that their time with physical territory is limited. For example the coalition operation to retake Mosul is ongoing. And there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism for ISIS to counter. Other than typical guerilla warfare tactics such as booby-traps and ambushes, Mosul is a waiting game. Which is unfortunate for the innocent civilians being slaughtered under ISIS’ rule. Once Mosul is retaken, ISIS will lose their foothold in Iraq. Then it is only their “capital” in Raqqa that remains. At this moment, Raqqa is being bombarded by Russian and Syrian jets. Losing Raqqa is also only a matter of time.
Yet, the death of al Baghdadi is only a small victory. It is a victory because he is the leader of this terror group of course. It is a victory because the things done under his rule are horrific, disgusting and unforgivable no doubt. But it is small because we are not at war with Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS is a proxy army for a much larger enemy. Jihadism. Unfortunately these threats can not simply be eradicated by taking back lost territory in the Middle East. It is an ideology we are up against that spans the globe. As long as there are radicals preaching and spewing this nonsense, groups like ISIS will not go away. Jihadis’ will only raise a different black flag.
While ISIS has been the most violent manifestation of Jihadism in recent memory, it isn’t the first. Militant’s across the world take up the black banner to not only support ISIS. But to support the type of world ISIS wishes to build. This is a caliphate built upon their version of Sharia law. They receive support from radicals across the world. Whether it be Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Abu Sayyaf of the Philippines, or Boko Haram of Nigeria – their reach is global.
The way to combat this problem of global jihad requires a new type of hybrid warfare. Yes, we must eliminate those who are immediately violent. But we must also focus on reaching out to the young people on the fringe of joining these groups. And elevate the moderate voices within the Muslim community. Only they can combat this evil strain in an ideological war. We need to get to a point, even further than we are, that becoming a radical is untenable within the faith. Currently, jihadi’s believe they’re justified in their zeal. The Muslim community needs to continue to look inward, and choose how they want their faith to be represented. Groups like Quilliam and Maajid Nawaz are doing this by writing, speaking, and educating. The “Imam of Peace” – Imam Tawhidi – has gone on many twitter tirades against the violence of jihadist ideology. This, and more, are all required to quash jihadism.
So while Bakr al Baghdadi death is a victory, it should not be overstated. He is simply a face on jihadism. Gaining back territory from ISIS is only the beginning of the fight. The true fight will come to ideological differences within the Muslim community. We should do everything we can to support the people on the side of peace and coexistence. Or ISIS will become only the most recent jihadist cult, and new ones will soon rear their nasty heads.
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