In early June, a Turkish newspaper reported that Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is dead. The report, which allegedly came from an ISIS-controlled website, is disputed.
Al Baghdadi has not been heard from since December 2015, when he issued an audio message. Since that time, rumors about his death have circulated in Iraqi, Kurdish, Turkish, Lebanese and other regional media on an almost weekly basis. In reality, the claims of Al Baghdadi’s death cannot be corroborated until we have a clear statement issued by an established entity, namely the Russian government, the United States government or a verifiable Islamic State source.
But what if these claims are true? Would they affect ISIS? Research by experts on what intelligence and security professionals call “decapitation” – namely, attempts to neutralize a terrorist or criminal group by killing its leader or leaders – is rarely effective, especially when they target religiously motivated militant groups. That is not to say that a possible death of Al Baghdadi will not affect the psychology of ISIS troops at a critical time, as they find themselves under persistent military attacks in Iraq, Syria and Libya. But decapitations are rarely game changers.
If Al Baghdadi is dead, much will depend on how ISIS handles the crisis and the level of unity within the organization. The survivability of groups like ISIS depends on their capacity to evolve according to changing conditions on the ground. For the past several years, ISIS has shown that it is capable of adapting its style of fighting to tactical requirements, for instance by using conventional military means in unconventional ways. It can be expected that the group will continue to adapt in response to changing circumstances.