Perhaps one of the last thoughts to occur to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before he ignited the suicide vest he’d strapped to his frail but portly frame, was that surely someone in his own organization had betrayed him. How else to explain how Delta Force commandos, and one enterprising Belgian Malinois, were now on the ground chasing after him in his unlikely hideaway in Idlib province? He’d have been right to sniff treachery in the ranks. As it happens, he wasn’t just done in by one ISIS turncoat; he was done in by several.
One, according to the Guardian, was a Syrian smuggler who’d transported Baghdadi’s children and in-laws across the border from Iraq, sometimes via Turkey. Another was that smuggler’s wife. Still another was one of Baghdadi’s own nephews. But the most important defector, as Reuters reported, was Baghdadi’s aide de camp, Ismael al-Ethawi, a veteran of ISIS who joined back when it was still known as al Qaeda in Iraq. All told, the most notorious terrorist in the world was, by the end of his days, running an incredibly leaky ship.
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That might give the impression that the state of the Islamic State, as of October 2019, is in mortal decline. Perforated with moles. Symbolically neutered by the absence of its ghastly “caliphate,” which at one point superimposed itself on two Middle Eastern countries spanning an expanse of territory roughly the size of Great Britain. Down one long-serving commander (Baghdadi ran ISIS for more than half the organization’s existence), a native Iraqi with bona fide theological training who claimed descent from the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed. Also now down a spokesman thought to be in the running for the leadership, plus who knows how many other top operatives who’ve been hoovered up in the last 72 hours as a result of the actionable intelligence gathered by the CIA from the ruins of Baghdadi’s compound.
But the Pentagon isn’t quite declaring total victory just yet, even if Donald Trump insists on doing so. This is because Baghdadi’s death hardly spells the end of a 16 year-long project, which began as the brainchild of a Jordanian ex-con in the mountainous region of northern Iraq in 2003 and now, after two strategic military defeats by the United States, nevertheless claims willing executioners in almost every continent on the planet. Here are five reasons to be wary of thinking ISIS is done and dusted.
1. Money, mobility and manpower
According to the anti-ISIS coalition, there are still some 14,000 active fighters in Syria and Iraq, although no one really knows how that math is done and whether or not that figure overshoots or undershoots the actual mark. Or even how the mark is defined. The uncertainty is partly because ISIS doesn’t just run suicide bombers and combat battalions; it runs an enormous network of spies, informants, transporters, bagmen and unenlisted fellow travelers. How else to explain how Baghdadi was able to move from his presumed bolt-hole in eastern Syria all the way to Barisha, Idlib, just 5 kilometers from the Turkish border? He had a team of people helping him, paying thousands in bribes no doubt to anyone who stood in his way, be they the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Assad regime and its proxies, and possibly also the Turkish gendarmerie.
ISIS’s financial stats are murky, too. Trump has couched his decision to reverse course and send American troops back into Syria in a desire to keep oil fields safe from ISIS takeover. But while it’s true that hydrocarbons contributed mightily to the organization’s coffers five years ago, ISIS always had other means of self-enrichment at its disposal. The group levied taxes on millions under its yoke when the Caliphate was in clover. It allegedly also ran car dealerships and money-exchanges in Iraq, having completely infiltrated that country’s grey and black market economies.
“ISIS had a lot of money,” Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a noted terrorism expert, told me. Now that the Caliphate has fallen, “it is fairly unclear what happened to it all. Some evidence suggests that certain middlemen were used to invest the money in legitimate business ventures like real estate. This would be a fairly typical move taken by terrorist movements in the past as well, jihadist or otherwise.”
While ISIS doesn’t control whole cities or townships any longer, the group is still thought to be flush with enough cash to cause mayhem. The loss of the Caliphate will refocus the group’s expenditures away from administrative services (paying the salaries of the hisbah, or morality police, keeping the lights on in Raqqa and Mosul) and toward what it knows how to do best: setting off bombs and waging opportunistic terror attacks. One of Baghdadi’s final instructions to the faithful before his demise was to spring ISIS detainees from prison; a tried-and-true tactic of replenishing the ranks with battle-hardened and operationally savvy fighters. Turkey’s invasion into northeast Syria earlier this month might have led to the jailbreak of over 100 of these, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper stated.
2. The next generation awaits
When it’s not relying on jailbreaks, ISIS can count on recruiting the next generation of jihadists from among the many refugee camps scattered across Syria and Iraq. At al-Hawl, for instance, in northeast Syria, there are 68,000 inhabitants, 94 percent of them women and children who formerly lived under the ISIS yoke, according to a recent study published by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twenty thousand kids, Zelin notes, are under the age of five, meaning they were born after ISIS’s lightning conquest and have known no other life besides that of the caliphate and the horrific internment conditions they are living in now. Al-Hawl is rife with malnutrition, overflowing sewage, infectious diseases and the absence of potable water—it’s colloquially known as “the Camp of Death” to its inhabitants. Many of the children, unsurprisingly, are being indoctrinated to long for the recent past by mothers who haven’t lost their zeal for the cause. They are pledging oaths of allegiance to Baghdadi and telling Western reporters who visit that they hope to grow up to be suicide-bombers.
3. Impending civil war in Iraq
In Iraq, ISIS has not only to look forward to reconnecting with its “cubs” of the caliphate now housed in similarly dire internment facilities, but also to an impending national crisis which may yet lead to another civil war.
For weeks, Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest the central government in Baghdad and its hegemonic patron in Tehran. What prompted these protests? The unceremonious sacking and demotion of a national hero, Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, former commander of Iraq’s elite “Golden Division” counterterrorism strike force which, more than any other domestic military unit, bore the brunt of the five-year campaign against ISIS. Al-Saadi was close to the U.S. government, and therein lies his unpopularity among the Iranian-backed militias who stand as competitors for control of the military and security establishments. Most of the protesters have been Shia, like al-Saadi, who have no wish to live in a satrapy run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Iranian-backed militias have responded to demands they leave Iraq by deploying snipers to shoot those protesters dead. All told, 240 people have died in the past month.
An attack today in the holy city of Karbala, perpetrated by unknown masked gunmen who killed 18 and injured hundreds more, has only added to the chaos. Karbala, home to one of Shia Islam’s most venerated shrines, has been a prime target for ISIS ever since the organization’s psychopathic founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, laid down what he saw as the best way to swell his franchise: by fomenting sectarian carnage by killing Shia, knowing they’d retaliate by killing Sunnis, who’d have no other recourse but to join his grim faction. Baghdad denies the casualty toll, stating that only one protester died; by most reported accounts, though, Iraqi SWAT teams and Shia militias were responsible for the atrocity. Whatever the case, expect ISIS to capitalize on the bloodletting of a Muslim sect it has genocidal designs on.
At the very least, it will look to exploit any security vacuum in Iraq as the central government and Iranian proxies fan out across the country to try and rein in a civil unrest of their own making.
4. Aggressive outward expansion
As far as ISIS’s international reach is concerned, its steady expansion into Africa (Mozambique and Congo, in particular) and South Asia will continue to lead to gruesome terrorist plots, such as the Easter Sri Lanka bombing, which had the highest butcher’s bill of any foreign ISIS operation. That bombing, lest we forget, was carried out after the collapse of the physical Caliphate. Terror plots in the West are down markedly, but in terms of global brand luster, ISIS is still way ahead of al-Qaeda. Still, much will now depend on who replaces Baghdadi as leader of the franchise and whether or not he can command as much of a fanatical following.
5. A new caliph will rise
As to that leader, the field is growing increasingly fallow. After reports that U.S. troops also killed Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, a spokesman thought to have been one of the potential heirs to the throne, eyes now are said to fall on Abdallah Qardash, a 15-year companion of Baghdadi and a fellow onetime detainee of Camp Bucca, the main prison facility run by U.S. forces during the occupation of Iraq. Longevity counts. There aren’t that many old-timers left in this organization, and those who have survived or eluded permanent incarceration are obviously considered the most able-bodied generals.
What will make Qardash a bit of a hard sell as ISIS leader, however, is that he’s said to be non-Arab but rather an ethnic Turkmen, from the northwest Iraqi border city of Tal Afar, long an incubator for some of the deadliest jihadists to emerge in the region after 9/11.
Interestingly, ISIS disputes Qardash’s Turkmen identity, insisting he is indeed Arab. Though the extent to which such genealogical pedigree will matter in future is disputable. After all, Baghdadi turned what had been, before his ascent to the top spot, a thoroughly “Iraqized” insurgency into a multicultural and multinational death-cult, one which even emphasizes this United Colors of Benetton approach to proselytization in its propaganda sheets and videos, now conveniently available in multiple languages. Where the medieval “state” Baghdadi lorded over may be no more, in its place a Jihadist Internationale has sprung up, populated by infamous Russians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Germans, Turks, Belgians, Frenchmen, Britons, Americans and Nigerians, all of whom render the term “foreign fighter” into an outmoded cliche. Who’s to say that a non-Arab can’t one day run the show? There would be no better expression of ISIS’ staying power, lengthening shadow and near-limitless capacity for self-reinvention.