Why ISIS will survive al-Baghdadi’s death

atmane tazaghart (*)

Far from having put an end to ISIS’s existence or even its power of nuisance, the death of its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – killed on last October 27, during an operation by American special forces in northern Syria – will accelerate two trends in the making for several months, within the new Jihadist International: the first is structural, the second one is operational.

Having lost control of the vast Syrian-Iraqi strongholds over which it had established an Islamic proto-state, ISIS was forced to give up its dream of restoring the caliphate. And to survive, it had to undergo a fundamental structural transformation. The exact opposite of the one that saw it transform, in the summer of 2014, from an underground terrorist group, like so many others in the Salafi-Jihadist sphere, into a new form of “terrorist state” imposing his dictatorship on a population of more than 8 million people, on an immense territory embracing about 40% of Iraq’s area and over 30% of Syria’s.

As the bases of this proto-State had been crushed, under the crossfire of the international coalition, Kurdish forces and the Syrian army supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, ISIS was forced to return to clandestinity, thus resuming the classic modus operandi of jihadist terrorist groups.

For apparent security reasons, this trend will intensify further after al-Baghdadi’s death. And from this structural mutation – similar to that carried out by Al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001 – will come another operational mutation: for a long time, ISIS leaned against the aura provided by its proto-State presented as the restoration of the caliphate to provoke, from a distance, spontaneous jihadist vocations, which some were quick to designate as “solitary wolves”. However, this spontaneous influx quickly dried up, following the military disappointments afflicting the so-called caliphate, in the very heart of its Syrian-Iraqi strongholds.

Under the aegis of AMNI, the ISIS’s intelligence service, whose influence within the Organization’s management bodies has increased considerably since the fall of the caliphate (see opposite), a supervisory process has been launched to take control and structure the actions of these “wolves”, which are definitely not so “solitary” as some experts wanted to (make) believe.

To this end, a Diwan (department) was created last summer within the AMNI to institutionalize the actions of this type of self-radicalized elements in which the propaganda of ISIS provokes spontaneous jihadist vocations. The objective is to assign “coordinators” to them at the level of each country or region.

It is with this in mind that ISIS launched last September an operation called Tahtim al-Aswar (destroying the walls), aimed at freeing several hundred foreign jihadists detained by Kurdish forces. This operation was a success, thanks in particular to the destabilization caused by the Turkish offensive in the Kurdish areas of north-eastern Syria.