AMMAN— For many, the day that US President Donald Trump announced the death of the leader of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reminded them of the day Trump declared the end of IS a few months earlier.
After its supposed defeat, ISIS launched what it called “Vengeance for the Sham [the Levant]”, a series of military operations targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the provinces of Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir e-Zor, in addition to Syrian government forces and its allied militias in the Badia (eastern desert).
Though the group has not carried out any operations specifically in retaliation to al-Baghdadi’s death, ISIS has continued to carry out numerous operations all across Syria, as shown in the map below.
The End of al-Baghdadi or the end of ISIS?
With al-Baghdadi’s death and the organization no longer controlling any territory, ISIS’s sole concern has become “surviving,” according to Ahmad al-Khader, a spokesperson for the US-backed rebel group Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT) present in the al-Tanf area in eastern Syria.
After the fall of the caliphate, ISIS has transitioned to “guerilla warfare and rapid, secret movements,” he told Syria Direct. “They prefer to avoid direct confrontation or controlling territories where they could be defeated.”
The increased frequency of ISIS operations in Syria can be explained, according to al-Khader, by the “weak military and security control over these areas, in addition to ISIS’ retaliation for the defeat of the so-called caliphate.” “The proof,” he argued, “is that no ISIS members are thinking of attacking, even covertly, the 55 km area [the US military base in al-Tanf] under the control of MaT and the International Coalition.”
Still, the official did not understate the danger of ISIS. Due to its ability to “move swiftly”, ISIS still “constitutes a great danger not to be underestimated, something which requires constant vigilance.”
On the contrary, Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert focusing on extremist Islamic groups, told Syria Direct that “the death of al-Baghdadi does not seriously impact ISIS, because its bureaucratic structure has remained solid.”
Previously, he argued, the strategy of organizational “decapitation” had not greatly affected ISIS. The killing of previous leaders who formed the backbone of the organization, namely Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and most recently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had not hindered the group.
Beyond this, the death of al-Baghdadi may lead to “an increase in the number of ISIS operations,” according to Abu Hanieh. “Or they may announce a retaliatory [campaign] for the death of al-Baghdadi.”
With the death of al-Baghdadi, ISIS lost “no more than a symbol,” according to Abu Hanieh, while “the field, operational, media and religious leaders are still present and established, and they are working together in a coherent structure.”
As he pointed out, after the loss of the last ISIS stronghold in al-Baghuz, Baghdadi restructured the organization, and “established a supervising committee [which administers the ‘provinces’, in ISIS terms], as well as a military, security, legal and media committee, in order to have a unified structure in all of its ‘provinces,’ whether in Iraq and Syria.”
“Therefore, we have not seen a decrease in the frequency of operations after al-Baghdadi’s death, but an increase, not only in Syria but in all [regions ISIS considers as] its provinces.”
Abu Hanieh pointed to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s opening remarks at a meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS in Washington in mid-November, where he indicated that the Coalition would continue in its activities in Iraq and Syria as well as focus its activities in “West Africa and the Sahel,” as “ISIS is outpacing the ability of regional governments.” ISIS international expansion, according to Abu Hanieh, was not connected to the death of the group leader but had been in motion before and after the death of al-Baghdadi.
He added that historically, ISIS works according to “already developed plans not affected by anything, as seen after its defeat in al-Baghouz, when the organization announced [attacks] of attrition and retaliation.”
ISIS “does not operate randomly, but rather has a set of annual plans created by al-Baghdadi and implemented by the organization, such as recruiting soldiers, and destroying strategic points.”
In addition to the plans, the organization has “a coherent structure from the highest levels of the state to the lowest detachment,” Abu Hanieh said.
Defected Syrian military colonel and strategic analyst Ahmed Hamadah agreed with Abu Hanieh, saying in an interview with Syria Direct that “organizations like Daesh [the Arabic acronym of ISIS] have a hierarchy and an alternative leadership.”
“The death of al-Baghdadi, as well as other blows to the organization, might throw it into disarray, but it can regain its coherence.”
Since ISIS’s organizational core was formed in Iraq in 2006 as the “Islamic State in Iraq” –years before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi changed the name and the group’s territorial mandate in April 2013 –the organization has accrued significant experience in dealing with and adapting to war-time conditions.
The recent developments in northeast Syria, namely Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” against the SDF and the Trump administration’s confusing pullout and subsequent return of US troops, have created a military vacuum in the area, which constitutes a prime opportunity for ISIS.
“If the organization finds the space and the chance to carry out its operations, then it will. The organization waits then seizes opportunities. It does not create them, but exploits them,” Abu Hanieh explained.
ISIS also began focusing on “guerilla warfare and war of attrition” or a “strategy of temporarily overturning cities.” Accordingly, after carrying out a range of broad but limited attacks, they would then quickly withdraw from areas, without establishing control over a territory. “This means that the organization is not in a rush, instead, it focuses on working slowly,” according to Abu Hanieh.
Over the past years, the SDF has proven to be the most effective force fighting ISIS on the ground. As such, the US-led international coalition relied on the SDF to counter ISIS’s presence in northern and eastern Syria. However, the Turkish military operation has “disrupted pre-established programs,” noted Abu Hanieh.
In the event of a US withdrawal, international efforts to fight ISIS would be “stalled.” This would leave “local efforts to be undertaken by the [Syrian] regime, Russia, Turkey and others. However, these actors have a different set of priorities. ISIS has a lot of experience navigating these differences, especially in terms of the implementation of safe zone agreements between the Russians, the Americans, and the Turks,” said Abu Hanieh.
He went on to explain that “the fundamental dilemma now is that the priorities of the Syrian, Russian and Iranian regimes are not to thwart ISIS, but instead to deal with Idlib. If the Americans withdraw, there will be a security vacuum and it won’t be possible for the SDF to counter the organization without support from the coalition.”At the same time, Colonel Hamadah considers ISIS to be “infiltrated from all sides and vulnerable to being exploited in favor of the SDF or the [Syrian] regime in order to foment chaos and insecurity.” He added that the new leadership of ISIS has not stopped its activities and that “the killing of al-Baghdadi has not stopped its operations.” However, the organization “may change its tactics and appearance.”
Will ISIS return?
As a result of the new tactics employed by ISIS against its opponents, “conventional wars cannot succeed in eliminating the group,” Abu Hanieh said. “There is a need for different tactics, intelligence information and drone capabilities. These technologies are not available to most forces in Syria.”
He added that “a Pentagon report warned that ISIS would be able to return in just over a year if the U.S. withdrew its forces, causing Trump to slow down the reduction of troops.”
Days after al-Baghdadi was killed, ISIS announced that Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi was designated as his successor, without releasing any information on the new leader. However, President Trump tweeted, “Daesh has a new commander, we know exactly who he is.”
Colonel Hamadah went on to say that “al-Qurashi does not differ from al-Baghdadi in the leadership of the organization.” He elaborated saying: “Daesh is not based on just one person; there is a hierarchy.”
Abu Hanieh, however, noted that “despite the strength of Daesh’s organizational structure, the group can be characterized by its leader.” He explained that al-Baghdadi was more involved in legal matters and, therefore, was a largely symbolic leader.
“if the new leader, Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, is actually Abdullah Qardash (Abu Omar al-Turkamni), who is in charge of the security bureau, it will undoubtedly mean that the organization will be more violent and fiercer in its fighting.”
Abu Hanieh concluded by saying, “currently all their [IS] operations in Syria are concentrated in the desert region and are limited in other areas. But in the long run, it is possible to extend into reconciliation areas [between the government forces and the Syrian opposition armed groups] as well as to Idlib and beyond. The organization is not in a hurry. This is what it did in Iraq after the US withdrawal in 2010 and 2011.”
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Lauren Remaley, Seth Thomas, William Christou and Rohan Advani.