The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, is not the end of ISIS. But what ISIS becomes now is not clear either.
Some believe that Baghdadi’s elimination is little more than a symbolic victory. Revolutionary insurgencies and terrorist organizations usually have a succession arranged in case the top leader is killed. A new ISIS leader will be named soon, and the overall danger is undiminished. ISIS will go on in various countries as a guerrilla warfighting organization and a terrorist network. It may be less centrally organized than before, but just as lethal.
The other judgment (which I share) is that killing Baghdadi is of considerable significance. Baghdadi established ISIS. He was the founding father, the heroic leader. He was the caliph of the new Islamic State created in a blitzkrieg across Syria and Iraq, just as Prophet Mohammed’s army swept out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. To his followers, Baghdadi was the personification of Islam’s long-awaited resurrection and return to dignity. Several hundred thousand local and foreign fighters traveled long distances to live in a sharia state, and they brought their families. These people pledged their lives to Baghdadi. Often the foreign fighters were the most dedicated. Only a few years after the events, it’s too easy to forget this.
The story of ISIS/Islamic State is nothing new. It’s just the most recent version of a recurring historical phenomenon. ISIS represents an ideology, an “idea.” It is a fanaticism that at its very core is totalitarian. It cannot be otherwise, because what a political movement does on the outside is a function of what it is inside itself.
ISIS’s relation to the Islamic State resembles the Nazi party’s relation to the Third Reich and the Bolshevik party’s relation to the Soviet Union. The party and the state merge to form a totalitarian party-state, focused on a heroic leader. Islamic State is about religious supremacy, Nazism about race supremacy, and Communism about class supremacy.
It was vitally important to smash the Islamic State as a regime ruling a territory, to prevent it from becoming permanent. It was vital that the Islamic State go the way of the Third Reich rather than that of the Soviet Union.
ISIS will go on making war. But now it is a decentralized guerrilla insurrection in various countries. The dream of a global Islamic caliphate governing huge territories is dead.
A disillusioned ISIS may well change its name, and this may confuse Western discussion about it. ISIS itself, with its new name, was the successor to an earlier group whose leader was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Furthermore, local ISIS networks are likely to merge with other jihadist groups, even al Qaeda.
Islamist jihad is a fanaticism or it is nothing. It is intense emotion and extreme passion focused in a political movement. ISIS is surely about war and destruction. But if war and looting was the main attraction, hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi militants, plus tens of thousands of foreign fighters and their families, would not have joined up, traveled long distances to live in a sharia state, and pledged themselves to Baghdadi.
It is often said that an ideology cannot be killed. True enough, but that’s not the end of the story. The number of people that believe in it can be ground down. And as the ranks thin, the intensity of their belief will wither. Continuing failure has consequences.
The goal of the U.S.-led military action was to reduce the fight against ISIS to local and national police action against local terrorist attacks. Countries such as the United States and France are blessed in this sense. Syria and Iraq are not so lucky.
The views expressed are the author's own.