US President, Donald Trump has announced that Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State Group was killed during a special operation by US forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. During the operation, Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest alongside several young children he had grabbed to use as human shields, according to Trump. Prior to this operation, rumours he had been killed or seriously wounded in an airstrike in early 2015 proved unfounded as have numerous subsequent reports of his death. Sources at the Pentagon say al-Baghdadi was the target of the top-secret operation in the last bastion of the country’s Islamist-dominated opposition, a faction that has clashed with ISIS in recent years. Previously, Ayad al-Jumaili, believed to be a deputy of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed alongside other Islamic State commanders in a strike carried out by the Iraqi air force in the region of al-Qaim, near the border with Syria in an airstrike on Friday, 25 October, according to Iraqi intelligence.

One of the unique features of ISIS was that radicalised persons prepared to carry out attacks in the name of the group pledged allegiance to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi by name. In other words, the Caliphate’s fighters were loyal to its leader and not the Caliphate itself. Following Baghdadi’s death, by its own rules, only a person descended from the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) may ascend to rulership to the Caliphate, and the members of that tribe represent a small minority in the organisation. When Osama bin Laden was killed by American special forces, Ayman al-Zawahiri was immediately announced as his successor.

On 31 October 2019, the Islamic State confirmed the death of al-Baghdadi, and named his successor. An IS outlet on messaging service Telegram announced that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi was the group’s new leader and “caliph”.

Hashemi is an unknown figure, and the name is believed by some analysts to be a nom de guerre like Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. IS did not release any other details about the new leader, except to say that he is a veteran jihadist fighter who had fought against the West and is descended from the Prophet’s Quraysh tribe.

As for its overseas operations, the decision of al-Baghdadi to adopt of a looser, significantly less decentralised structure means that ISIS affiliates are more than able to regenerate their operational presence, even if his death, and al-Qurashi’s low profile, means that the affiliation of the overseas groups to the central organisation may now be in some doubt. In Nigeria’s case, in light of the lack of a coherent containment strategy by the Nigerian government, ISWAP is likely to continue growing into the dominant ISIS affiliate in the Sahel, with the aim of re-enacting the erstwhile caliphates al-Baghdadi created in Syria and Iraq in West Africa. Where ISIS’s emergence in Iraq was the sort of insult to its foreign policy that the United States of America simply could not countenance, the declaration of a caliphate in West Africa is unlikely to be met with the same determined show of force as was used to rout ISIS from Mosul.

Map showing the different areas of control of groups in Borno. Source: USAID

Al-Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to significantly weaken militia groups in the Sahel, thanks to the group’s very nature. The yielding of authority to local provinces to run their spheres semi-autonomously, means that local commanders such as al-Barnawi have far more authority over their groups than would be the case in a more centralised structure such as Al-Qaeda’s. In the short term, the West African groups may lose the expertise of the better-trained foreign ISIS fighters, in addition to technical support and the unifying flag that ISIS represents in the jihadi movement. Depending on the personal charisma of the person who emerges as the new Caliph, the central authority of ISIS might even be weakened, especially if the local commanders reject the legitimacy of his rule. Also, the total loss of its territories in Syria and Iraq means that although ISIS has loyalists and fighters still, they no longer have a “state” to call their own. This could push the group to seek overseas territories in places where the Americans and Europeans are unlikely to be as invested in emotionally. In light of this, West Africa will be firmly in the group’s cross-hairs.

ISWAP has already demonstrated battlefield competence and there is not much to prevent it from running over yet another army outpost if it desires. Additionally, ISWAP’s focus on the military and its ongoing attempts to establish an economic base in the Sahel could be a significant cause for concern. Already, ISIS in Indonesia is proving itself to be a major headache for the government there, with a surge in militant attacks in Asia’s most populous Islamic nation, and this could serve as a blueprint for ISWAP and other ISIS affiliates in the Sahel and beyond.

As stated before, the Islamic State has always encouraged its followers to plan attacks within their own locations if they’re unable to make it to Raqqa, and with Raqqa gone and al-Baghdadi dead, it may just be business as usual for these local affiliates.

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