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Daesh lives on despite the loss of its ‘caliph’

November 8, 2019 at 2:23 pm

A Daesh militant, 30 August 2017 [VOA/Wikipedia]

While the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi represents one of the most successful anti-terrorist actions in recent history and was a severe blow to Daesh, his death is rather symbolic given that the threat from the notorious group remains serious. Many analysts believe that his killing won’t have a significant effect on the group’s operations on the ground, at least not in the short term.

Make no mistake, action against Daesh has seriously diminished its operational strength and shaken its command structure; many of its senior figures have been taken out, and tens of thousands of its fighters have been killed or captured. However, the group still exists. Despite the military defeats and collapse of the self-proclaimed caliphate, it has taken the fight underground in Syria and Iraq while expanding its franchises in Afghanistan, South-East Asia and Africa. It has also aligned with other radical Islamist groups worldwide, suggesting that Daesh is very adaptable and it will be hard to eliminate it altogether. With obvious resilience, the world wonders to what extent the group will recover after the killing of its leader and if it will be able to repeat its previous “success”.

According to Colin Clarke, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, with the selection of Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi as its new leader, Daesh is clearly suggesting that he claims descent from Prophet Muhammad. “This would seem to be a ‘safe pick’ because it can ensure continuity and business as usual,” wrote Clarke, “signalling to [Daesh] supporters that the new leader will carry on the legacy of the Caliphate.”

In using Al-Hashimi and Al-Qurayshi, one Iraqi expert on Daesh, Hisham Al-Hashemi, suggests that the new leader is claiming to be a member of the Quraysh tribe, a necessary precondition for the title of caliph according to some Islamic authorities, as this was the clan of Prophet Mohammed. He also claims to be a Hashemite as well, a clan which is has direct lineage from the Prophet.

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In Clarke’s opinion, Daesh is trying to reassure its followers that “allegiance should still be to the leadership, and affiliates and franchises should continue to look to Al-Qurayshi for guidance on how to operate.”

When it comes to leadership, Encyclopaedia Geopolitica’s team of experts — Lewis Tallon, Simon Schofield and John Rugaber — explained that Baghdadi, according to available information, did not have extensive operational responsibilities, especially outside “the Caliphate”. “[Daesh] set itself up on a model called ‘leaderless resistance’ which specifically establishes the organisation independently of any given leadership figure,” they told me.

Hence, the onus is on individual supporters to carry out attacks at times and places of their choosing. The encyclopaedia team warned that this model is still in place; although Baghdadi’s death and the collapse of Dabiq — the movement’s propaganda tool — are major blows to its propaganda capability, they are not fatal.

We must not forget that the death of the leader does not automatically mean the end of any organisation. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 did not mean the end of Al-Qaeda, nor has the Taliban disappeared following the death of Mullah Omar in 2013.

John Rugaber highlighted the fact that these individuals were more inspirational than operational commanders, but they also served a purpose to the West as they provided a face to a faceless enemy. Since organisations like Daesh are decentralised and lack structure, they offer individuals a lot of operational freedom making them harder to defeat. Rugaber explained that Western governments have to sell wars to their respective publics. Providing reports about organisations’ top commanders regardless of what their actual responsibilities may be creates an enemy understandable to a Western audience. Thus, “An individual whose death would lead to the collapse of the organisation and therefore justifies the expenditure in both lives and equipment to kill or capture the head of the organisation; when that does not happen, especially in the Global War on Terrorism, a new face of the enemy emerges.”

As such, we should not speak of the end of Daesh. In fact, the opposite could well be true, multiple sources claim.

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A report to the US Congress in June, for example, revealed that the strategy of Daesh in Syria and Iraq is to create turmoil in territory that it has lost and prevent the local regime forces from establishing effective control and maintaining civil order. In such conditions, by carrying out multiple attacks over a wide area, Daesh “likely aims to show it is everywhere and can strike with impunity where it pleases.” Moreover, as Iraqi and US-backed Syrian forces struggle to maintain a security presence in cleared territories, the resurrection of Daesh comes as no surprise.

Furthermore, despite losing most of its revenue stream, the group is still able to gather enough resources from kidnapping individuals from wealthy families for ransom, extorting civilians and skimming funds off rebuilding contracts, especially in areas of Iraq. It has also been reported that Daesh still generates oil revenues from supply lines across the region. According to US Treasury officials, oil is a key source of Daesh funds even though it has lost control of the oil fields it had seized in Iraq and Syria.

Finally, there are still at least 18,000 to 20,000 fighters loyal to Daesh, including up to 3,000 foreigners. These are figures that other terrorist groups can only dream of. They are still carrying out attacks on an almost daily basis. Given that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have had to abandon the prisons they were running which housed large numbers of Daesh militants, Tallon, Schofield and Rugaber warn that the prisoners have most likely escaped.

However, Rugaber pointed out that any time that there are Daesh concentrations of force, it runs the risk of being attacked by the international community. He forecasts that the organisation will probably go underground until an opportunity presents itself to rise again. It is imperative, he believes, for the international community to start working with the Assad government in order to prevent the conditions which allow groups like Daesh to emerge, no matter how difficult this may be. As it stands, though, as long the right mixture of toxic factors are in place, such as the absence of effective state institutions and rule of law along with poverty and permanent insecurity, it would be naïve to hope that Daesh or any other extremist groups will simply vanish.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.