Baghdadi’s death will punctuate the end of an era

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not provided a state for quite a while. Within the Islamic State, members have grumbled that he has been an absentee caliph, gone for months at a time, and not even clear in his instructions about whom to follow in his absence. The group long since stopped promising a paradise, and downgraded its territorial offering to a hellscape soon to be overrun by its enemies. It became ideologically riven, with hardliners accusing others of being softies, and both the softies and the hardliners trying to kill each other. Baghdadi, it seems, was gone for much of this debate, and provided only vague guidance, and little in the way of security or leadership. Some former supporters have felt abandoned, and have voiced their disgust.

His death will therefore definitively end an era that had already, in a sense, ended, if not with a whimper then with an inglorious bleating of complaints from his own flock. For years now, the hardest thing for outsiders to understand about the Islamic State has been its ability to inspire—to get some Muslims to leave comfortable circumstances to fight and die. For the last year, even as the world has diverted its attention from ISIS, the group’s ability to inspire has been severely diminished, and almost no one is leaving home to die for ISIS, or choosing to die in suicide attacks for ISIS at home. The inspiration is gone, and the party over, for now. And although Baghdadi seems to have obtained the martyrdom he sought, he got it in the end, not as a caliph, but as just another bloody hairball in a pile of rubble.

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