The U.S. President’s announcement last week of the death of the Iraqi-born Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Idlib Province of northwest Syria has drawn worldwide attention. Baghdadi is said to have blown himself up using his ammunition-laden vest when pursued into a tunnel by U.S. special forces. This dramatic incident reminds us of the elimination in 2011 — and as a U.S. operation again— of the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. This perpetrator of violence and hatred was also hunted down in Abbottabad, Pakistan and liquidated by the Americans.
The lives of the terror chiefs
A study of the lives of these two leaders makes for interesting reading and is a prerequisite to understanding the nuances of Islamist extremism. The parallels and contrasts are striking. Osama bin Laden was the older of the two and was from an affluent business family. Baghdadi had a modest economic background and was from a family of farmers. But both had a religious streak and a university education with somewhat modest attainments. Both were dastardly, vengeful and stood for disruption and chaos. Violence came naturally to both, except that bin Laden seemed more rational in the choice of his targets. Baghdadi, unlike bin Laden, was not a household name in the U.S. This stands to reason because Baghdadi did not attempt anything spectacular on the scale of 9/11, which was an act that transformed the lives of millions around the world and especially within the U.S. Baghdadi’s vision was narrower and one that confined itself initially to West Asia, particularly Iraq and Syria. While he exploited the opportunity created by bin Laden and retreating into a shell to escape American operations, it is interesting to speculate whether he would ever have acquired his prominence and notoriety had bin Laden been alive. The al-Qaeda and the IS operated independently although not always at cross-purposes. They, however, never complemented each other. The IS came into existence after bin Laden became nearly moribund. It believed in spectacular action and did not get bogged down to theory or ideology. Osama bin Laden never spoke in terms of sovereignty or territory. His appeal favoured a fanatic ideology which considered all non-Muslims as infidels who needed to be dealt with utmost severity. His was a macrovision that was partly airy. In contrast, Baghdadi was down to earth and materialistic, and believed in the power of control over geographic territory and the full use of the state apparatus with all its resources, including oil, the black gold, to spread and perpetuate the IS’s message. This, as well as his near infatuation with the gross exploitation of women, stood out and distorted whatever bin Laden had stood for. There was hardly any sense in the frenzy which earned Baghdadi more foes than friends. This is why there was wild jubilation in parts of Iraq and Syria (the IS operated here with unprecedented ruthlessness driven mostly by Baghdadi, and where a large number of families lost their breadwinners or children) when the IS experienced losses. An interesting sidelight was Baghdadi’s concern for his own security, something that was ridiculously obsessive. His fear psychosis scaled to the extent that he never had mobile communications lest his location be compromised. He hired men from a sect that disliked him because he distrusted his own kith and kin; ultimately it was his innermost circle that betrayed him.
What lies ahead
As it happened when bin Laden was killed there is now a big question mark over the future of the IS. Terrorism experts have been engaged in serious debate by assessing the absence of Baghdadi on the IS. The specific question that has been raised is about who would lead the IS from this point onwards. Particularly engaging has been the news within days of Baghdadi’s death, of another death — of his potential successor, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, having died in a security force operation. But experts are equally impressed by the swift appointment of one Abu Ibrahim Hashimi al-Quraishi as the new replacement; there is practically nothing known about him. The question that remains unsatisfactorily answered is whether the quality of leadership makes such a lot of difference to a movement that thrives solely on an individual’s spirit of vengeance and does not call for any extraordinary organising capacity. The short audio clipping that was released announcing the appointment warned the U.S. of severe reprisal for Baghdadi’s killing. It is therefore reasonable to believe that Iraq and Syria are in for a turbulent time. The partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria has already complicated the situation, leading to the escape from custody of a number of IS prisoners and their families. The IS’s new leadership may be expected to make an intense appeal to its cadres not to become demoralised after the elimination of Baghdadi and remind them of the immediate task of scaled up revenge against the remaining American forces. One may not expect any immediate attrition in the IS’s ranks which are spread over a wide area encompassing most of West Asia and parts of Asia and Africa. The basic structure would comprise what are known as Wilayats headquartered in a number of provinces in each country.
India has enough reason to be apprehensive about the developments in West Asia. The alert by the Home Ministry to the States of the possibility of ‘lone wolf’ IS attacks across the nation is worrying. The MHA is especially apprehensive about attacks on high dignitaries. In this context, the raids by the National Investigation Agency in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere suggest an IS presence in the country. This is not fearmongering if one considers how a few misguided Indian youth crossed into Iraq in the early days of the IS to fight for jihad. Most were disillusioned in quick time and a few returned home with horror stories of the state of IS camps. But there is reason to believe that others have stayed back and could be the dangerous part of IS’s core. The tasks before security agencies are two-fold: to keep a close eye on the returnees so that they do not lapse into mischief and allow themselves to be used as ‘sleeper cells’; and to assist the authorities in deradicalisation as well as checking new recruitment to the IS. Both are difficult tasks that require enormous community alertness and swift communication with security agencies.