IS jihadist danger still lurks after Baghdadi death

Leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (PTI Photo)

The death of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a new blow to the extremist group that once controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria but in no way marks an end to the threat posed by the jihadists.

Analysts said that IS and the extremist jihadist movement have over the last one-and-a-half decades repeatedly shown resilience after the death of key leaders while battle-hardened militants remain in place.

The group may have been ready for the death of Baghdadi and after an initial period of few readjustments could even use it has a rallying case for launching new attacks, they added.

The death of Baghdadi in a raid by US special forces in northwestern Syria was announced by President Donald Trump, who said the jihadist chief died by setting off a suicide vest.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor in Middle East studies at Sciences-Po in Paris, said that the death represented a huge setback for IS, which at the height of its success in 2014 proclaimed a new "caliphate" across parts of Iraq and Syria.

"But it is not certain that such a symbolic loss will fundamentally affect the operational direction of Daesh (IS), which has long been in the hands of seasoned professionals," he told AFP.

"In this respect, his demise could, in the long run, have even less impact than the killing of Osama bin Laden did on Al-Qaeda."

Bin Laden, who masterminded the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States, was killed in an American raid in Pakistan in May 2011.

But his death did not stop Al-Qaeda affiliates staging attacks and taking part in conflicts across the world, such as the Al-Nusra front group in northern Syria, or the development of IS itself into a global extremist group.

"The most likely outcome is that the death of Baghdadi leads to a moment of silence and a pause in terror attacks" Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based specialist on extremist movements, told AFP.

This was the case after the killing in 2010 of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the former head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, from which IS emerged, he said. The Al-Qaeda group needed some four months to "re-activate its operations".

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi built up the IS group from 2003 while he was jailed in the giant US-run Iraqi prison of Camp Bucca. There, he met several former army and security officials from the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein who would form the initial core of the group.

The extremists he led initially worked within the framework of Al-Qaeda but then Baghdadi distanced himself from the extremist network founded by bin Laden.

He led IS to the peak of its success in 2014, when it controlled swathes of northern Iraq and Syria, including the major Iraqi city of Mosul.

He declared a "caliphate" of Islamic territory to succeed the one dissolved with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But the territory under its control in Iraq and Syria has gradually eaten away, as anti-jihadist forces staged a comeback.

The caliphate was declared defeated in Syria by a coalition of forces including Kurdish militia in March 2019.

Baghdadi made his only confirmed public appearance in July 2014 at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the captured Iraqi city of Mosul, urging Muslims around the world to pledge allegiance to the caliphate.

He then disappeared from sight, only resurfacing in a video in April. Wearing a wiry grey and red beard and with an assault rifle at his side, he encouraged followers to "take revenge" after the group's territorial defeat.

"Baghdadi's death is a huge blow to ISIS (IS) and its internal network," said Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group which follows jihadist media.

But, writing on Twitter, she pointed out that the history of the jihadist movement showed it was able to overcome the deaths of leaders such as the former chief of Al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed by a US airstrike in 2006.

"ISIS has illustrated its operational resiliency, and will definitely capitalise on Baghdadi's death for recruitment and calls for attacks," she said.

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