To ISIS supporters around the globe, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was a beacon of hope in an extremely troubled world. His words and actions showed millions of Muslims that it might be possible to create an Islamic State that, he claimed, would be organized according to Islamic principles and ruled by Islamic values. For the 40,000 foreign fighters who flocked to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed “Caliphate” over the past years, many were yearning for purpose, significance, dignity, freedom and life lived by Islamic ideals.
Now that Baghdadi is dead, that he failed to deliver will not be blamed by all on him alone. Instead, listening to President Trump gloating over Baghdadi’s death and announcing repeatedly that Baghdadi “was vicious and violent and he died in a vicious and violent way” and “as a coward running and crying” and “like a dog” just reinforces many views among alienated Muslims of the Western world as cruel and heartless, and the U.S. president as an international bully. Likewise, calling Baghdadi a “sick and depraved man” are words that fall on deaf ears when said by one who many see as the Great Satan. And it doesn’t help that Trump also seems fixated on the oil in Syria versus the welfare of the people there.
Thus, that Baghdadi has been killed will do little to diminish ISIS, which is still alive and well in both Syria and Iraq, carrying out weekly attacks in both places. According to some terrorism experts, ISIS is as strong now as it was at its outset, with just as many members active on the ground now as then. Thus Baghdadi’s importance, as both a symbol and personage, to ISIS needs to be viewed through the lens from which his organization emerged and operated and where it will likely be going in the future.
It’s important to realize that ISIS as an organization was formed not by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, but instead was formed in large part by former Iraqi security officials, mid- to high-level Baathist party members dismissed from Sadaam’s military and intelligence operation following the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq. These men were angered over losing prestige, power and dominance and they were determined to take it back. During that time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq was the most potent spoiler of the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq, making it impossible for the temporary occupation forces to deliver peace and security. Thus, those who wanted to oppose the U.S. to try to regain Sunni power in Iraq, such as these dismissed Baathists, quickly saw that throwing in their lot with militant jihadis and Islamists might be the best manner for them to achieve their goals.
How determined these Sunni former powerholders were at the time was demonstrated to the author in a bizarre late-night meeting in Amman, Jordan, with Sadaam’s former cabinet members, minus Tariq Aziz, in 2007. These deposed leaders were gathered in a room and smoking incessantly as they waved their cigarettes in the air while insisting that they had the Iraqi tribal leaders’ agreement and full support to retake Iraq. As they spun their grand plans, they requested a meeting with General Petraeus to announce their new power move. Their request was passed to him by the author, but the general did not grant their meeting as he dismissed them as powerless.
Apparently they were not so powerless, however. As those who later went ahead did so, firmly throwing their lot in with violent Islamists, to succeed in raising up the group that later became ISIS – a group that ruled great swathes of Syria and Iraq and created havoc and destruction in many of our cities.
Taking opportune advantage of the uprising in Syria, these Iraqi jihadists, many living in Mosul, saw an opportunity to set up the long-awaited Islamic State – one of the goals of al Qaeda in Iraq – by moving first into Syria and from there returning to retake Iraq. As the writings of ISIS emni leader and strategist Haji Bakr demonstrate, these ISIS operators were not simple jihadists, but instead came with the full experience of Sadaam’s former military and intelligence security apparatus. Likewise, some already had relationships with Assad’s security officials who had worked with them in the past supporting the terrorist fight against the 2003-08 American presence in Iraq. These men were adept at infiltration, intelligence gathering and toppling their enemies, so much so that in most of eastern Syria the ISIS militias did not have to actually fight and did not as a result lose a lot of manpower in battles to take towns and villages.
These leaders also knew how to manipulate, using Islam as a call to jihad and as a rallying call to those who were fed up with dictatorial violence, security violations and injustice. Their skills in this regard were also enhanced as they successfully attracted talent from around the world – managing to attract 40,000 foreigners to join them. More than the other competing groups, the ISIS leaders understood that it was necessary to attract tens of thousands to their cause and that to engage the hopes and imaginations of ordinary foot soldiers they would need to use Islam as a beacon of hope.
To do so they engaged militant jihadi teachings that militant jihad and hijrah (moving to live under lands ruled by shariah law) is incumbent and obligatory on every Muslim and that Islamic “martyrdom” encompasses taking part in a suicide mission. While al Qaeda in Iraq had attracted a meager 5,000 foreign fighters, many who came to sacrifice themselves in Iraq by carrying out “martyrdom” operations to embarrass and fight the U.S.-led coalition and government of Iraq, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq ultimately attracted over 40,000 foreign fighters – many who were also willing to engage in suicide operations.
“During 2014 and 2015 – we had approximately 35,000 [foreign fighters who] entered,” Abu Mansour, an ISIS emir from Morocco who was interviewed by ICSVE in February 2019, recounted. “After that I don’t know, but the numbers declined each year.” His numbers matched those of experts who estimate at least 40,000 foreign fighters went to Syria, most ending up in ISIS. “Before 2014 and 2015, a high number of them were willing to martyr themselves,” Abu Mansour explained, noting that they were sent immediately to training facilities where the would-be suicide cadres were isolated and encouraged on their death missions. “Before 2014, 50 percent came to martyr themselves. Then it went under 20 percent,” he noted, referring to that Raqqa had stabilized, and increasingly foreign fighters came not only to die for but also to live under the Islamic State rule – pulled in by the promises Abu Bakr al Baghdadi made to the world.
That ISIS was also able to motivate foreign fighters to embark on suicide operations made their front lines in battle terrifying to anyone who wanted to survive. These suicide operations also drove soldiers who didn’t want to fire at children approaching them with bombs to abandon their checkpoints.
In regard to the massive influx of foreign fighters, ISIS leaders could also manipulate most, who could not speak Arabic or understand for themselves the political situation on the ground, to carry out their violent bidding even against other Sunni Muslim groups. As a result of their quickly amassed and formidable on-the-ground forces, as well as their intelligence gathering that allowed them to avoid many battles through targeted assassinations, and using da’wah (Islamic teaching) to spread their message ahead into the population, ISIS leaders quickly moved over the land, racking up victory after victory. As they did so, they set up a functioning de-facto state that took over oil, gained control of all local economies, set up taxation, and began trade in illicit antiquities and human slaves – all activities that made the state strong and capable to pay its workers and provide them with many benefits. All of this set the stage well for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to emerge as Caliph. He was important, but all of this ground work was achieved by others.
The men who set up ISIS were also experienced and adept at totalitarian statecraft. While at first the ISIS leaders were careful to win popular support, once firmly entrenched into power these men knew only too well how to use fear and brutality to control their citizenry and foot soldiers and they also quickly understood how to make use of their newly bandied about religious-based ideology to create some basis of legitimacy for their despotic rule.
These men needed a strong figurehead to create this desired Islamic image. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had been “discovered” in Camp Bucca during his short stint there in 2004 where many of this curious mix of insurgents and jihadists were imprisoned after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and, having nothing better to do, they plotted to take back Sunni control of Iraq upon release. Although in their new vision, post-Sadaam, they would use Islam to do so and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a bachelor’s-level Islamic scholar with a pedigree of having descended in the line of the Prophet, fit the bill. He was educated enough to proclaim himself as a scholar and having descended from the Prophet could claim to be a Caliph. He was what they needed, but he was not the mastermind of their plans, simply the figurehead – which is why losing him now will not devastate the group at all.
Another way of learning how Baghdadi was viewed by his followers is to ask them, as ICSVE researchers have for the past three years, querying through firsthand accounts and in-depth interviews of captured, defected and returned ISIS cadres. Currently, our sample includes 217 such individuals: men, women and minors who lived and served under ISIS and who, in the case of the males, for the most part, swore their bayat, or oath of allegiance, to Baghdadi.
In 2015, after engaging their military and intelligence plans to take large parts of Syria and from there to invade Northern Iraq, taking over Mosul, the leaders of ISIS – judging that most, if not all, of the Islamic conditions for declaring a Caliphate were met – defied their terrorist al Qaeda brothers’ wishes to postpone declaring a Caliphate and used Baghdadi to do so, creating an irrevocable split with al Qaeda. In his one and only public appearance during the time ISIS held territory Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was able to engage the imaginations and hopes of Muslims all around the globe, and perhaps important to note is that those standing behind him didn’t even have to use the ISIS social media machinery to do it – international news media did it for them.
In Rotterdam, Netherlands, Umm Mohamed, an ISIS wife we interviewed in October 2018 in the SDF-administered Camp Roj, recalled watching Baghdadi on her television announce the Caliphate and proclaim himself as its Caliph. “At first I had my doubts,” she said. But as a university-educated history student, she decided to look into it to “see if it is a real Islamic State or not.”
As faithful Muslims, Umm Mohamed and her husband were aware of Islamic teachings. “I tried to find more information about it,” she recalled. “I believed that every Muslim has an obligation to live where they can practice their Islam.” As an immigrant Muslim of Moroccan descent living in the Netherlands, Umm Mohamed and her family had suffered their share of Islamophobic attacks. “I had people put stickers saying no jihad in our street,” she said, an unfair label in her opinion. “I was not a jihadi. I was active in school, but I know how it feels when people refuse you because of your religion.” Thinking back to how things suddenly changed after the 2001 al Qaeda attacks in the U.S., she explained, “When 9-11 happened, all of a sudden I had to explain myself for what Osama bin Laden did.”
Al Qaeda ideologues understood this sense of alienation for Muslims in Europe and had been working for years to take advantage of it, creating a narrative that the West was victimizing Muslims around the world – something Trump’s gloating and harsh words now plays into. Al Qaeda ideologue al Suri taught that if the movement’s ideas were spread throughout the Muslim world small pockets of resistance would spontaneously emerge and a leaderless jihad would occur. Anwar al Awlaki, the U.S.-born Yemeni al Qaeda ideologue who spoke in flawless English, also put out charismatic recruiting videos on YouTube that were particularly popular with Muslims in the West who were facing marginalization and discrimination. He lectured that jihad is their individual duty, that jihad is an endless fight until the end times and that all Muslims must make hijrah – that is, move to lands ruled by shariah law. Many attacks have occurred among Awlaki’s followers. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared his Caliphate and made himself Caliph at a time ripe for Muslims in Europe disillusioned by the promises of prosperity and good lives for which their parents had migrated to Europe as laborers, which didn’t seem to be true for them. Finding that even with the college educations their parents had never obtained it was hard, if not impossible, to break into European society to become any more than the coal miners, garbage collectors, cleaners, shwarma shop operators, etc., that their parents had been. Many were thus searching for an alternative and an alternative world governance – something offering them a fair chance and opportunities as faithful Muslims, as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was offering, looked attractive.
In his 2015 Mosul speech Baghdadi promised that under his direction, the Islamic world would be returned to “dignity, might, rights and leadership.” Hailing the jihadi victory of controlling land across Syria and also breaking into Iraq to take over Mosul he announced, “God gave your mujahedeen brothers victory after long years of jihad and patience… so they declared the caliphate and placed the caliph in charge,” he said. Unlike Trump, he humbly added, “If you see that I am wrong, advise me and put me on the right track, and obey me as long as I obey God in you.” Baghdadi also invoked the past claiming, “This is a duty on Muslims that has been lost for centuries,” and in his bid to rebuild the lost Caliphate he called on doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic jurisprudence to migrate. His call came at the right time when Muslims in Europe were disillusioned with discrimination and marginalization and Arab Muslims were seeing the Arab Spring fail them – just as jihadi leaders had warned would be the case for those who embraced non-Islamist governance and hopes for democracy.
As she recalls looking into the claims made by Baghdadi, Dutch Umm Mohamed recounts, “Their propaganda was very strong. ISIS was strong, even in the Western media.” When asked what social media she had visited to investigate their claims, she said she didn’t have to – ISIS was all over the mainstream media and their feats were in clear evidence for all to see. “There also was a big hype that they took over half of Iraq in 3-4 days.” Umm Mohamed didn’t expect the prophecies of the Caliphate to happen in her lifetime, but when she saw all of this her thoughts changed. Looking back she recalled being a “normal” teenager; “After I got married, I got more religious. I wasn’t waiting for a Caliphate. I didn’t expect it to come.” However, married and in her late twenties, when she saw how strong ISIS was and heard Baghdadi’s claim to be the new Caliph and tell Muslims all around the world that it was their duty to come, she started to wonder, “Maybe this is the state that the Prophet said would come.”
As she and her husband became convinced, Umm Mohamed remembered, “At that time I was happy. This is a real Calipha.” When asked how she could have missed seeing the news that ISIS was beheading journalists and doing things most Muslims would not support, she answered that she never believed anything Western media reported about Muslims, expecting it to be Islamophobic propaganda. “I didn’t believe the media. As a Moroccan Muslim, [I knew that] western media lies about Muslims.” Like many who fell into the propaganda hype of ISIS and still do, their focus narrows to what the leaders like al Baghdadi are telling them and ISIS also instructs them not to believe Western media. In this way they funnel their recruits into believing their lies – which is one of the reasons that both ISIS and al Baghdadi must be delegitimized in the eyes of those who still believe they are telling the truth.
After becoming convinced that Baghdadi’s claims were for real, Umm Mohamed and her husband became so enthralled that they packed up their car, loaded in their four children and left everything – all their Western privileges and belongings behind – to drive to Syria to join the Islamic State.
The same thing was happening all over the globe. Forty thousand foreign fighters – men, women and their children – came, some first to help the Syrians suffering under Assad’s atrocities and others in direct response to the call of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
In nearby Belgium a similar story was repeating itself. Sara, 44, recalled a young Belgian woman and her friend who came back from living in the Islamic State befriending her 28-year-old daughter. The two women were actively spreading the word about the new Caliphate among disgruntled Muslims living in Belgium, playing upon their Islamic beliefs, hopes and dreams. “She said it is the place where every Muslim has to go if you want to stay Muslim. My daughter believed it and the young people all believed this,” Sara said. “They were telling those young people you have to go. There this is the real Islam.”
As with most recruiters in Belgium these women understood to drive a wedge between alienated youth finding their futures stymied in Belgium with their parents who were content with their immigration. “Surely your parents will oppose that,” their ISIS recruiter told them. “They will become miscreant [outside of the Islamic law].” Sara, however, wasn’t going to let this separation with her daughter happen.
“My daughter was not talking too much,” Sara recalled. “I was curious and asked questions. I took a lot of time, those discussions.” While she wasn’t at first convinced, her daughter was. “Then the video of Baghdadi came, asking all to join and saying those that don’t join are not Muslims at all. [He gave] many verses from the Quran,” Sara recalled. Baghdadi’s speech made her reconsider, “Maybe it’s possible, maybe not. He was declaring the Caliphate. It was something to catch so many people. It was a grand announcement in the world.” Meanwhile the female recruiter was acting upon them both, combining ISIS’s Internet propaganda with a real face and person to connect with. “Slowly and slowly this lady was arguing, telling about the women there [in ISIS]. In some ways it was attractive. She was telling us that women could decide if she wants to work or not. You can be compensated for children and self.”
Both Sara and Umm Mohamed had a big shock when they arrived into ISIS. Both found ISIS to be a huge prison, where the men were forced to fight and the women had nearly every aspect of their lives under totalitarian control. Umm Mohamed recalled, “When we went to Raqqa, that was like really the big shock for us. Basically, it was a prison for women. They couldn’t get out and the stories … It was really bad. There were women who thought about suicide. I felt regret directly.” Her husband was ultimately imprisoned by ISIS and Umm Mohamed managed to escape into an SDF camp where she and her children are now held prisoners.
Among foreign fighters and prisoners we have interviewed we find great disillusionment in both ISIS and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who these followers now see as purely self-interested and willing to simply use the foreign fighters they called to the Caliphate as cannon fodder. While some women in the SDF camps still claim that ISIS will reappear and the Caliphate will rise again, most foreign fighters we have spoken to are angry that Iraqis had food, cars, and escaped with gold from Baghouz, while they watched their children die of starvation and ended up in prisons. Those in prison are undergoing a type of spontaneous deradicalization and want nothing more to do with ISIS or its leaders.
Those who are still out on the battlefield, however, face another set of circumstances. Seeing their imprisoned brothers and sisters, they know that in Iraq they will likely face life imprisonment or the death penalty and may undergo torture and, in SDF hands, they will languish in prison. There is no amnesty, no hope of return home to face justice. They really have few choices and one is to continue the fight and hope for Islamic “martyrdom.”
In that they were encouraged by their now-dead leader as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi still claimed righteousness, as he did in his recent audio speech: “He who is guided by Allah no one can mislead him, and he who is misguided by Allah has no one to guide him, and I testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammed is his slave and messenger.”
Holding tight to the mantle of Islamic legitimacy, Baghdadi even in defeat claimed that despite losing their territory and having fled into hiding that the victory would ultimately be theirs. He did so by using Islamic verses that claimed that Allah cannot be defeated as though they apply directly to ISIS rather than to God himself. “Those who oppose Allah and His Messenger shall be among the humiliated. Allah has written: ‘I will surely be the Victor, I and My Messengers.’ Surely, Allah is the Strong, the Almighty,” Baghdadi claimed, saying, “This is a promise from Allah and a threat, a promise that cannot be broken or changed.”
Despite having disappeared almost completely as of late, Baghdadi went on to exhort his followers to patience: “Whatever time it takes, matters complicate, and paths diverse, there is no way to failure and reliability nor there is any place for doubt and suspicions. Patience and steadfastness, preaching and fighting.” He again quoted the Quran: “Therefore have patience; the promise of Allah is true, and ask forgiveness of your sins, and exalt with the praise of your Lord in the evening and at dawn” Surah Ghafir (the forgiver), Ayah No. 55 and again, with “Therefore, hold fast to that which is revealed to you, indeed, you are on the Straight Path” Surah al-Zukhruf (ornaments of gold), Ayah No. 43.
Perhaps most chilling in Baghdadi’s recent speech was his call to assault the camps and prisons where ISIS men and women are currently being held, something that has now occurred with the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. “The most bitter calamity is the prisons,” he claimed, exhorting his followers, “Oh you soldiers of the Caliphate, your brothers and sisters, exert all your efforts to save them and destroy the walls which chain then. Unchain the prisoner, that was the order and the advice of your Prophet (PBUH), so pay money for their freedom if it was impossible for you to release them by force, and lie in ambush everywhere for their butchers of the interrogators and the varmints who harmed them.” He also asked, “How can a Muslim live gladly while the Muslim women are lying in the camps of diaspora and the prisons of humiliation under the brunt of the crusaders and their tails of the Rafidhah the Safawis [Shiaa] and the criminal atheists and the apostate ravens everywhere in the world?”
Now that Baghdadi is killed, it’s not a defeat at all in the eyes of his followers who really face no other choices but to continue the battle. For them, the only future is victory or death. And militant jihadis will believe – despite President Trump’s claims to the contrary – that their leader died calling out “Allah Akbar!” (God is the Greatest!) and went immediately to Paradise. Indeed, Baghdadi urged his followers to do the same, stating in his most recent speech, “So seek refuge in Allah from them, and beware not to get caught by your enemy, for you have a good example in the glorious companion Asim bin Thabit (may Allah be pleased with him) who preferred to die over being caught so be after him the best followers.”
It’s highly likely that many ISIS adherents will be inspired to follow Baghdadi’s “martyrdom” path, carrying out a spate of attacks in his name. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi obligated his followers with the individual duty of jihad, telling them, “Therefore, fight in the way of Allah. Urge the believers on, in order that Allah may restrain the might of those who disbelieve.” He also promised them eternal rewards of martyrdom if they should fall in battle. “So let those who sell the worldly life for the Everlasting Life fight in the way of Allah, whoever fights in the way of Allah, and is killed or conquers, We shall give him a great wage” Surah al-Nisaa (women), Ayah No. 74. He also reminded his followers, “If you should be killed in the way of Allah or die, the Forgiveness and Mercy from Allah would surely be better than all you amass.” Surah AL-E-Imran, Aya no.157.
Likewise, Baghdadi claimed, “Fight in the way of Allah and fight the enemies of Allah, and always be certain that those who die in war or in travel, are destined to die at the day, and they are promised forgiveness and mercy for their jihad,” and “that to die in the way of Allah is far better to them than everything in this life.”
Despite Baghdadi’s demise in this life, expect to see more of ISIS.