Rumors of the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have floated for weeks, with Russia insisting that one of its air strikes took out the self-proclaimed “caliph” of ISIS last month. Just a few days ago, the terror organization executed one of its preachers for accidentally referencing Baghdadi’s death. Today, however, Iraqi News picked up reports from the city of Tal Afar that ISIS has announced the death of its leader — and that civil war has begun within the organization to determine who succeeds him:
The Islamic State has declared its runaway supreme leader dead, announcing it was going to name a successor soon, a source in Nineveh province said, the latest episode in clashing, unconfirmed reports around the leader’s survival.
Alsumaria News quoted a local source Tuesday saying that IS made a brief statement in the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, in which it confirmed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death without adding further details except stressing an imminent declaration of a successor and a call upon fighters to remain resilient.
Chaos flared in Tal Afar following the declaration, according to Alsumaria News’s sources. Infighting among Baghdadi’s loyalists and opponents broke out, prompting the group to carry out wide-scale arrests and to impose a curfew at most of the town.
A Syrian human-rights group tells Reuters that it has “confirmed information” of Baghdadi’s death:
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters on Tuesday that it had “confirmed information” that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed. …
Baghdadi’s death had been announced many times before but the Observatory has a track record of credible reporting on Syria’s civil war.
Abdulrahman said Observatory sources in Syria’s eastern town of Deir al-Zor had been told by Islamic State sources that Baghdadi had died “but they did not specify when”.
The question of when may not matter as much as where and how, assuming this is accurate and Baghdadi’s really dead. Going out in a Russian air strike would allow ISIS propagandists to spin it as a fulfillment of the twisted “martrydom” of radical Islamist terrorists; a death in combat in Mosul would work even better for them. If Baghdadi got killed farther away from the battlefield through some other means, that will be a lot more difficult to explain. Given the reaction to his death in Tal Afar, it could be that Baghdadi got killed by his own inner circle as part of a power play within ISIS as the “caliphate” collapsed over the last several months. That won’t play particularly well with potential recruits, so don’t expect to hear that story from ISIS websites.
If Baghdadi is really dead — and no one’s heard from him in a long time — then the big question is whether the organization can hold together. The two most obvious successors are Saddam-era military officers Iyad al-Obaidi and Ayad al-Jumaili, who have been running the war effort for Baghdadi. Neither of them are clerics, however, so the pretense of the caliphate will dissipate, and they will act more as warlords. That won’t offer the same extremist-religious pull for recruits, and the organization will revert more towards the model of ISIS predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was a dead-ender gang until Baghdadi reinvigorated it in the vacuum left by the American withdrawal from Iraq.
Of course, these are the same two geniuses who just lost Mosul, so it’s possible that another faction with more claim on religious authority will emerge from the upcoming civil war. Or perhaps they’ll just kill each other off and save the rest of the world the trouble. Let’s hope so.