Islamic State Still Silent on al-Baghdadi’s Death; Jihadis Celebrate His ‘Martyrdom’

A picture taken on October 27, 2019 shows Mosul's heavily damaged Al-Nuri Mosque in the former base of the Islamic State (IS) group in northern Iraq, where Jihadist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used to address followers before the group was chased out of the area in 2017. - Baghdadi, the …
ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images

The Islamic State (ISIS) still had not responded to the death of its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as of Wednesday afternoon. The ISIS news agency Amaq took little notice of al-Baghdadi’s demise, while “chatter” in jihadi social media networks is reportedly subdued.

Reuters on Wednesday quoted analysts who argued the shock of losing Baghdadi was far worse for ISIS than the shock of losing Osama bin Laden was for al-Qaeda in 2011:

“There is probably right now chaos inside what is left of the leadership. Key aides have been killed and documents destroyed,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi expert on militant groups.

“They will want to agree on a successor before announcing the death,” he said, adding that a split of the group could delay this.

The group might also need to rebrand itself since using Baghdadi’s declared Islamic caliphate was no longer appropriate having lost the swathes of Iraq, Syria and Libya its fighters used to control until 2017, analysts said.

On the other hand, Reuters noted al-Qaeda needed a few days to acknowledge bin Laden’s death and a few weeks to name a clear successor, so ISIS might be following a similar trajectory. The next issue of the ISIS weekly newsletter is due on Thursday, which might provide the terrorist organization with an opportunity to crown Baghdadi’s successor.

The relatively subdued tone on jihadi social media is an interesting difference from bin Laden’s death. A few ISIS supporters have tried denying Baghdadi is dead, or even dismissing his entire existence as a propaganda creation of sinister Western powers, but most settled for muttering that the fight will go on without him. One Reuters analysts suggested there are elements of the Islamic State that think Baghdadi did a poor job as leader and ISIS is better off without him.

The Islamic State’s rivals in al-Qaeda, by contrast, seem openly delighted by Baghdadi’s demise and have spent the past few days showering the ISIS splinter group with I-told-you-so messages and efforts to recruit them back into the al-Qaeda fold.

“How much blood has been shed in the name of his imaginary caliphate?” sneered one former official linked to al-Qaeda, his sick burn somewhat undermined by al-Qaeda’s general comfort level with shedding blood.

Al-Qaeda media reportedly put together a recruiting video urging ISIS devotees to accept Baghdadi’s death as a “glorious night in Muslim history” and urging them to join the “true jihad” offered by al-Qaeda. 

The one widely-circulated acknowledgment of Baghdadi’s death to emanate from the Islamic State’s Amaq media agency has been denounced as a fake: a bulletin that supposedly named Abdullah Qardash as his successor. Qardash is seen by analysts as a likely candidate for the post, but he had not been confirmed in that position as of Wednesday.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) found some unofficial pro-ISIS media outlets urging followers not to believe reports of Baghdadi’s death and await confirmation from official Islamic State media. Others informed ISIS true believers that “martyrdom” is the highest goal of the jihadi, so if Baghdadi is dead, it only means he succeeded at his life’s ambition.

“The jihad will not stop when a certain person dies, even if he was the caliph himself,” one leading ISIS media operative declared.

“What the impure Crusaders do not understand with regard to the Muslims’ creed, especially that of the jihad fighters, is that jihad in its entirety is not founded on men, but on creed. The creed does not die with the death or killing of men,” said a similar message in a pro-ISIS channel on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

“If Abu Bakr did attain martyrdom in the path of Allah, then he has achieved what he hoped for. Good for him! What a fine commander, worshiper, jihad fighter, pronouncer of monotheism he is!” declared another Telegram message, anticipating that Allah the “Merciful One” will quickly appoint a new “commander like him for the Islamic State.”

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