On several occasions throughout her campaign, Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has mentioned that part of her plan to defeat terrorist organization “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) consists of killing or capturing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. She believes that this decapitation strategy will allow the United States to “focus [its] attention [on fighting ISIS],” citing the demise of Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and Afghanistan on the assassination of founder Osama Bin Laden in 2011. By assuming that the ISIS will react in a similar way to Al-Qa’ida after the removal of a leader, I believe that Secretary Clinton is oversimplifying the comprehensive strategy that we need to employ to destroy ISIS.
What is decapitation?
Terrorism expert Audrey Cronin defines decapitation as “the removal by arrest or assassination of the top leaders or operational leaders of a group.” In the study she conducted for her book “How Terrorism Enders: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns,” Cronin cites several case studies where leaders of terrorist organizations were killed: the assassinations of the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the 1990s, of leaders of Chechen groups by Russians in the early 2000s, of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and of terrorist leaders from countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine by Israel. She concluded that there seem to be no cases where decapitation resulted in the halting of a group’s campaign. Instead, the organization may have evolved to have more of a political agenda, for example with Abu Sayyaf; still, groups often remain and may become more prolific and rampant after a ‘decapitation’ attempt.
There are, according to Cronin, many factors that affect the success of a decapitation strategy; for example, the structure of the organization, “the degree to which it fosters a cult of personality, the availability of a viable successor, the nature of its ideology, the political context, and whether the leader was killed or imprisoned.” With this in mind, we can begin to examine more closely Secretary Clinton’s assumption that getting rid of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will help defeat ISIS.
Founded in the late 1980s, Al-Qa’ida’s core leadership, according to the Wilson Center, does not claim to have direct control over the group’s structure. It instead focuses on messaging, strategy, and daily operations. However, the group’s affiliates do have to consult with the leadership before carrying out an attack. The core leadership is made up of a shura council in addition to committees for finance and information sharing.
Since the death of Bin Laden, former head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has led Al-Qa’ida. The activities of the group have been severely limited from 2011 (and even before that). According to some U.S. officials, the reason why al-Zawahiri has not been as influential as Bin Laden is that he lacks the charisma and combat experience. He has instead, on several occasions, been known as the brains behind Al-Qa’ida.
Earlier this year, ISIS released a propaganda video that conveniently detailed the organization’s structure, as experts had previously not known much about it. At the top of the hierarchy is the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Directly below him are the Shura Council – all of whom were appointed by Baghdadi and have the power to depose him – and the Delegated Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the Wilayats (provinces), the group’s Offices and various Committees (such as those which are appointed to oversee people’s rights and to enforce punishments). The video states that ISIS is made up of over 30 provinces, in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen.
Previous speculations about the structure of ISIS are very similar. They indicate that Baghdadi is at the top, along with his Shura Council. In these versions, Baghdadi also has two deputies – one for Iraq and one for Syria. Both receive reports from 12 governors, all of whom oversee the eight councils that focus in areas from Media, Finance, Intelligence, and Leadership. However, as a result of US operations in the Middle East, both deputies – Abu Muslim al-Turkemani and Abu Ali al-Anbari, were killed in the last two years. Turki al-Binali and Moussa al-Shawakh are the top candidates.
Al-Binali is the second most influential person in ISIS, he led the organization’s Research and Fatwa Department and served as the negotiator for the freeing of American hostage Peter Kassig. Also known as Abu Luqman, al-Shawakh was appointed as the first governor of Raqqa and was the former emir of the al-Nusra front. al-Shawakh is famous for his brutality, his sadistic torture methods, and for ordering the kidnapping of several members of the Free Syrian Army after he accused its members of working with the West.
Although there are many similarities between ISIS and Al-Qa’ida, I believe that using a decapitation strategy on the former will not be as successful for several reasons. First, with regard to successor, is it possible that ISIS will inherit a leader who, like al-Zawahiri, is less charismatic and experienced? It is very much so; however, we also have to consider the possibility of whoever becomes the next “caliph” might think they have something to prove and will thus employ more heinous tactics.
It is important to remember that much of ISIS’ success has also come from its online recruitment and propaganda. Al-Qa’ida was not this successful in inciting so many attacks and only in spreading and inspiring people to follow the sermons of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Even if Baghdadi were killed, there seems to be no evidence that the recent strategies of ISIS to elicit more domestic attacks will fall by the wayside. If one of the two above candidates did succeed Baghdadi, I contend that the group will pursue more aggressive recruitment tactics to seek revenge.
Another pertinent question to ask at this point is: Who has been running ISIS since last year? There have been numerous reports that Baghdadi was incapacitated due to a spinal injury and poisoned. If Baghdadi has not been running ISIS since the emergence of these reports, it is possible that the recent trends in ISIS’ activity – increased online recruitment and limited success in the Middle East – would be the direction of the group after the removal of Baghdadi. This would only further undermine Secretary Clinton’s argument that getting rid of Baghdadi would help the United States focus its attention, as it would be incredibly difficult to focus on the group’s fighters when they could appear anywhere. It would, however, help the United States to start to tackle funding channels and strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
My final question in making the comparison between ISIS and Al-Qa’ida would be: Is it possible that the demise of the core leadership of Al-Qai’da was caused not by the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, but rather the evolving nature of the threat – creation of factions as well as the rise of online recruitment – and the birth of ISIS? It can be argued that the core leadership of Al-Qa’ida had, for years before the fall of Bin Laden, not been successful. In fact, most of the coverage of Al-Qa’ida focused on its affiliates, namely the activities of Boko Haram and Al-Shabbab.
I believe that Secretary Clinton’s assumption that going after the leadership of ISIS will devastate the group’s activity is flawed. Though it is possible that it might cause the intended outcome, given the comparison she draws with Al-Qa’ida, it is equally as possible that ISIS will continue to operate and cause chaos wherever their affiliates and fighters are located. If Secretary Clinton does want to go forward with this plan, she must also consider the potential consequences if the targeted killing of Baghdadi were to fail because, as Cronin writes: “the killing of the leader can backfire, resulting in increased publicity for the group’s cause and the creation of a marry who attracts many new members to the organization.”
While I do believe that Secretary Clinton’s strategy is more sound, comprehensive, and feasible compared to Mr. Trump’s, she needs to focus on creating no-fly zones, safe zones, working with allies in the region, cutting off funding channels for the group, and focusing on tackling online radicalization.