Middle East

The Danger of Killing Islamic State's Caliph

Whoever takes his place could be a more fearsome foe.

Will the next standard-bearer be worse?

Photographer: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

We've seen this movie before, but still don't know how it ends: According to unconfirmed reports, the so-called caliph of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Raqqa, Syria. Similar rumors cropped up at least twice before, in January and October of last year, and both times the news of his death was greatly exaggerated. As for the latest report, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk said, "We have no reason to believe that Baghdadi's not still alive, but we have not heard from him since the end of last year." 

Baghdadi's silence or even death might seem like excellent news for the fight against the jihadists. An accomplished scholar of the Koran, he was named the "commander of believers" globally by Islamic State in 2014, a title not held since the fall of the Ottoman sultan.

But some military strategists and scholars of Islam make a strong argument that the U.S.-led coalition would be better off if Baghdadi remains alive and in charge.

Consider a 2014 study by Jenna Jordan of the Georgia Institute of Technology on so-called decapitation strikes against major terrorist groups. On the death of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, she writes, "decapitation is unlikely to diminish the ability" of al-Qaeda, "rather, it may have counterproductive consequences, emboldening or strengthening the organization."

She bases her claim on the theory of "organizational resilience," which may be more familiar to business school graduates than to counterterrorism operatives. Jordan doesn't buy the argument that a cohesive group sharing an intense belief in a goal depends on the "charismatic leadership" (to use Max Weber's phrase) of a single person like bin Laden or Baghdadi. Instead, she sees many clandestine groups as being bureaucracies often impervious to changes at the top. Such organizations "are diversified, have a clear division of administrative responsibilities and functions, follow rules and procedures, and are thus more likely to withstand the sudden removal of a leader or leaders." All of those characteristics apply far more accurately to Islamic State than to the relatively decentralized al-Qaeda.

So if eliminating Baghdadi wouldn't be a death blow to Islamic State, at least it would count as a victory in the ongoing war, right? Again, there is debate here. At the website War on the Rocks, Haroro Ingram of Australian National University and Craig Whiteside, a combat veteran teaching at the U.S. Naval War College Monterey, argue that "charismatic leadership is an inherently volatile and ephemeral form of leadership." The caliph, they worry, could be replaced by a figure with far stronger military and organizational skills.

The authors highlight the history of Islamic State's dark days after the 2006 death of its ruthless founder, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the prototypical charismatic leader. While Zarqawi's guerilla war on U.S. troops made what was then called al-Qaeda in Iraq the most feared faction in the Iraqi insurgency, his eagerness to kill fellow Muslims raised the ire of not just the nation's Shiite majority but also fellow Sunni radicals, including the al-Qaeda leadership. He was succeeded by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (no relation to the current caliph) who lacked Zarqawi's battlefield bravado but was a skilled manager who took the long view. He mended fences with other jihadist groups and re-tooled the group to take advantage of the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Thus not only is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi replaceable, his successor could pose an even bigger threat, especially if he chose not to declare himself caliph of the Muslim world. That would open the possibility of Islamic State mending fences with other Sunni terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate the Al Nusra Front, which is emerging as the most potent military force in that nation's civil war.

So what's the alternative to decapitation? The best way to cripple a terrorist group may be to take out its "middle managers." In an article for the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Peter Neumann, Ryan Evans (who founded War on the Rocks) and Raffaello Pantucci argue that the figures found on the org chart between the leadership elites and the field troops are the "connective tissue" that holds the organization together. Indeed, the French scholar Mathieu Guidere says that the U.S.-led coalition has made a priority of killing "technical cadres and the mid-level commanders who, though they don't take the decisions, execute them … Without them, nothing could be done on the ground."

With Islamic State forces on the rocks in both Fallujah, Iraq, and their capital of Raqqa, Baghdadi's grand strategy appears increasingly flawed. Instead of targeting him and rolling the dice on his replacement, the U.S. should perhaps allow him to become, as Ingram and Whiteside put it, a "caliph without a caliphate."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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