The world’s most lethal terrorist group has been allegedly headless for nearly two months after losing its acting leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was thought to be grievously wounded in a US-led airstrike in western Iraq on March 18.
Recent reports affirm that al-Baghdadi remains incapacitated due to spinal damage from the airstrike, and is being treated by two doctors who visit him at an undisclosed refuge. Jihadi defectors have claimed that he has been transferred to the Syrian city of Raqqa.
More important than his location is the fact that he has not been able to resume active command of the jihadist group, and it appears unlikely that he will be able to do so. Speculation regarding al-Baghdadi’s possible successor as leader of the Caliphate has focused on several candidates for the role, none of whom has a lock on the position.
Defectors have said that the Shura Council, a religious governing body of about nine senior ISIS leaders thought to be dominated by Iraqis, will soon vote on who will become the next leader of the Islamic State, though while al-Baghdadi is still alive, the new leader may very well be a sort of executive director, still nominally reporting to al-Baghdadi.
The Islamic State is presently being guided by deputy leader Abu Alaa al-Afri, which is thought to be an alias of Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, a name recently added to the U.S. Rewards for Justice list. The U.S. State Department has offered a $7 million reward for information on him, the second highest value placed on any ISIS leader after al-Baghdadi himself, who commands $10 million.
The State Department has reported that al-Qaduli joined al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, serving as the group’s deputy leader and its emir in Mosul. Al-Qaduli was reportedly captured in Iraq and jailed but released in 2012 and is said to have joined ISIS, spending part of 2012 in Syria, according to the U.S. Treasury.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated al-Qaduli as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in May of 2014.
Al-Afri is one of several ethnic Turkmens at the pinnacle of the ISIS hierarchy and is believed to hail from the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, a strategically important crossroads under Islamic State control.
Osama bin Laden supposedly chose Al-Afri as his preferred candidate to lead ISIS after the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was killed in a joint operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2010. Unlike Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, however, he was not from a family that could claim direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed, which may have led to his being passed over for the job.
Some analysts suggest there may be signs that al-Afri is maneuvering his way toward the post, notably by preaching the sermon at prayers last Friday in Mosul’s al Zangi mosque, the very mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself as the new “caliph” last summer. Analysts say he may also be attempting to doctor his own lineage in order to claim a genealogical link to Mohammed.
Another Iraqi, Abu Ali al-Anbari, a Mosul native and head of ISIS’ Security Council, is a second candidate for the job. Memory sticks found during a raid last year identified al-Anbari as overseeing Islamic State military operations in Syria.
Like al-Afri, he rose through the ranks of al Qaeda in Iraq but had been previously thrown out of another extremist Sunni group, Ansar al-Islam, for financial corruption. He has no religious training and little juridical background in Sharia law, though he is considered a brilliant military tactician.
Al-Anbari served in Saddam Hussein’s military, which might make his candidacy unpopular among foreign fighters and more militant Salafists inside ISIS.
Michael Weiss, the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, said it would be “very unlikely that a known ex-Saddam military officer would be appointed caliph.” He also suggested that al-Anbari is better suited to playing the man behind the throne than the actual public leader of the organization.
A third possible candidate is a Syrian and the current Islamic State governor of Raqqa—Abu Luqman, an alias for Ali Moussa al-Hawikh. Luqman was freed from a Damascus jail in the summer of 2011 by President Bashar al-Assad, at the outset of the uprising against the Syrian government.
His Syrian nationality may make him an unacceptable contender to the Iraqis that dominate the higher ranks of ISIS, but his election could also silence the growing discontent among Syrian fighters.
Others suggest that the current spokesman of the Islamic State, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a 38-year old Syrian veteran of the Iraqi insurgency, could also be considered for the vacant post.
Al-Adnani was the one who first proclaimed the establishment of a “caliphate” last June, and since then has made several audio recordings. It was al-Adnani who last September said it was the religious duty of ISIS supporters in the West to launch lone-wolf attacks, which resulted in a number of ISIS-inspired attacks by loners in North America, Europe, and Australia.
The U.S. Department of State designated al-Adnani as a “specially designated global terrorist” and last week offered $5 million for information on him.
The fact that that al-Adnani is Syrian will count against him just as it will against Luqman, but he also has the added disadvantage of youth for the post. The advantage of name recognition among ISIS militants worldwide may not trump the major leap required to go from spokesman to leader.
A final figure to emerge as a potential successor to al-Baghdadi is Tunisian-born Tariq Al-Harzi, one of the first foreign fighters to join ISIS, according to the U.S. government. Al-Harzi has been called the Islamic State’s “emir of suicide bombers” and has proven to be an extremely successful fundraiser for the operation.
He is thought to be in charge of the jihadist group’s operations beyond Iraq and Syria, a role of growing importance as ISIS has established itself in Libya and forged alliances in Nigeria and Egypt.
While acknowledging the inherent difficulties in grasping the leadership structure of an organization as secretive as ISIS, analysts seem to agree that such a structured organization must have a succession plan in place, and the ability to effect a rapid change of guard as soon as the need arises.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome