Implications of the death of IS leaders

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Implications of the death of IS leaders

Recent reports on the death of Islamic State (IS) leaders and a US strategy of targeted airstrikes against senior members raise questions as to what effect the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, or his deputies, would have on the operational capabilities of the group.

Key Points

  • We assess that leadership losses within Islamic State (IS) – including the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi – would probably not significantly impact IS operations in Iraq and Syria in the near to medium term. This is due to the resilient and adaptive institutional structure of the group, which appears to combine elements of decentralised operations with clandestine protection of top leaders.

  • Based on our analysis of available documents, practices of the group’s predecessor – Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I) – and the success of their operations thus far, IS appears to have put in place a structure that is meant to survive the losses of top operatives.

  • At present, the coalition against IS seems unable to inflict leadership losses fast enough to hinder the group’s operations. Until such a time as the coalition can exert more intense pressure on the core leadership, the organisation will probably be able to sustain the loss of leaders.

  • In the longer term, the ability of any successor to Baghdadi to command similar authority will probably play a role in continued allegiance of different elements that constitute the ‘state’. IS is also vulnerable to other pressures, including battlefield losses, which could reduce the authority of leaders. Still, IS has also become a brand and ideology that is unlikely to collapse in the event of Baghdadi’s death.

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IS losses and organisational structure

Recent reports on the death of Islamic State (IS) leaders and a US strategy of targeted airstrikes against senior members raise questions as to what effect the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, or his deputies, would have on the operational capabilities of the group.  This article looks at the operational structure of IS, potential successors to Baghdadi and possible issues with these figures. It then briefly considers potential organisational vulnerabilities and tipping points for collapse, and challenges of the current US strategy.

Most of what is publicly known about the operational structure of IS comes from a series of leaked documents and second-hand reports that are difficult to verify. There is thus considerable variation in descriptions of the group’s structure, and much about it remains unknown – IS leadership probably intends that it remain this way. Nonetheless, IS seems to be set up to withstand the loss of its top leaders. As both a clandestine terrorist organisation and an aspiring ‘state’, the group a

ppears to combine elements of both: a fairly clear organised and decentralised operational structure, as well as a secretive line of command.

Based on the balance of reporting, the self-styled ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and a six-member Sharia council that determines interpretation and compliance of Sharia law sit at the top of the IS hierarchy. While subordinate to Baghdadi, the council appoints the caliph and his successor. Also near the top of the structure is a Shura council of around ten deputies, many of whom seem to also hold prominent positions in other councils. Some reports claim that this body serves as Baghdadi’s cabinet, but these are unconfirmed.

We have seen reports of anywhere from two to nine other councils that seem akin to government ministries, in charge of the military, security and intelligence, finance, media and the judiciary (see the attached chart). The Iraqi security forces (ISF) found documents in a raid against a senior IS leader. These were published by The Telegraph in July 2014 and suggest that Baghdadi also has two deputies who oversee IS provinces, or wilayat, in Iraq and Syria respectively. Most estimates suggest that there are 16 provinces in total in both countries, but there are discrepancies over the locations and names of some.

Each province is run by a governor, who oversees several councils, which are divided along similar lines to the top councils outlined above. It seems that there is at least a Sharia, military and security council in each wilaya, but some sources suggest that the whole structure is replicated at each level. The provinces are further divided into townships or districts, with at least a leader and a military and security commander in each.

This hierarchical, but relatively decentralised structure appears to allow the group to control large portions of territory while retaining enough men to fight on the frontlines. Most reports suggest that in many areas IS co-opts local leaders to rule under IS authority. It is then not clear to what extent, and how frequently, these leaders receive commands from top officials. Research by two journalists who have written extensively on IS found that most governors do not live in their respective provinces.

These details suggest that a large portion of day-to-day operations are delegated to local officials. IS’ ability to conduct multiple operations simultaneously in disparate locations lends credence to this theory. Decentralisation also reduces the group’s reliance on one single leader. While Baghdadi, his deputies and provincial governors probably determine strategic objectives – indeed the success of recent battles in Ramadi and Palmyra suggest there is an overarching military strategy – local commanders appear to have the authority to mount attacks. This makes it more probable that in the event of Baghdadi’s death, military leaders at different levels and Shura council members would continue operations, at least in the near to medium term.

While IS has a more public face than its predecessor AQ-I, it seems to have retained the ability to operate covertly, which makes identifying top leaders difficult. It also enables the group to continue to mount terrorist attacks in areas where it does not have territorial control. In an interview with a journalist, a CENTCOM official said that in the process of taking out AQ-I’s leaders after 2006, ‘the smarter and more powerful’ survived, ‘the ones who were good at internal counter-intelligence and buffering access to key leaders…’.

Other reports suggest that the group has a sophisticated internal security apparatus, probably put in place by former Baathists. This protects the group from dissent and infiltration in its ranks. Der Spiegel has published documents allegedly belonging to one such leader depicting plans for a Baathist-style surveillance structure that operates at every command level. It seems probable that IS isolates its leaders, including by giving them aliases – the US Department of State lists 12 different known names for one top IS leader – to protect the organisation from the capture or death of its members.

Potential successors

The organisational structure outlined above also suggests that IS has plans and people in place in the event of Baghdadi’s death. According to the US Department of State, the ‘second in command’ is Abu Alaa Al-Afari (also known as Abdul Rahman Al-Qaduli), who reportedly leads IS operations in Iraq. The Guardian reported in mid-May that Al-Afari delivered an ‘unusual’ sermon in Mosul, suggesting that he may be gathering supporters for eventual succession. Afari reportedly served as deputy to AQ-I leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. The ISF claimed he was killed in airstrike near Tal Afar last month, but the US has not confirmed this.

According to The Telegraph, Baghdadi’s second deputy is known as Abu Ali Al-Anbari, in charge of operations in Syria. Reports suggest he served as either an intelligence officer or military commander under Saddam Hussein. The US Department of State has released the names of other ‘wanted’ individuals who could be considered as potential successors, including spokesman Abu Mohammed Al-Adnani, and military commanders Tariq Al-Harzi and Omar Al Shishani. But none of these men appear to have credentials that match the current caliph.

Baghdadi claims to be a descendant of the prophet, a member of the Quraish family, one of the requirements for the title of ‘caliph’ according to Islamic scholars. Based on the sparse information on the above-mentioned individuals, it does not seem that they can or do claim similar backgrounds. The Carnegie Endowment has suggested another name, Abu Abdullah, an alleged member of the Shura council with ties to the Quraish. The organisation also suggests that there are probably others with similar backgrounds. Given this, we forecast that Baghdadi’s successor will probably be a relatively unknown figure, just as Baghdadi was when he took the helm of the organisation.

But Baghdadi has also won significant leadership legitimacy among the global salafist-jihadist movement for his role in transforming IS from a local group into a multinational ‘state’. It is not clear whether his replacement can command a similar following. Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has not been able to command the same authority as predecessor Osama bin Laden, indeed to such an extent that Baghdadi has arguably surpassed him in terms of global influence. In the longer term, the ability of IS to secure an accepted successor in the event of Baghdadi’s death will probably be significant in determining whether the various affiliated groups renew their pledges of allegiance to IS.

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Tipping point

Most organisations have a finite capacity to withstand stressors before they collapse as a coherent structure. Assessing what this tipping point is, and the group’s resilience to withstand losses of key personnel, is difficult to do with confidence – particularly in a largely clandestine organisation. It is not clear to what extent IS could withstand the death of most of its leaders, particularly if this were to occur within a short time period. So far, however, the organisation has proven highly adaptive and resilient while confronting multiple adversaries and sustaining significant battlefield losses.

Broad strategic military operations do seem to be centrally organised and these would almost certainly suffer were the majority of the top command to be killed. The coordinated campaign of leadership interdiction led by the US and allied forces in Iraq after 2006 did eventually weaken IS’ predecessor AQ-I. But this was conducted when the US had an occupying troop presence in the country. This enabled a high intensity of operations in a relatively short period of time, such that AQ-I could not replace or regenerate leaders fast enough. It also occurred in conjunction with other shifts in the war, including the Sunni-led ‘Awakening’, which reduced support for AQ-I. Even so, the death of Al-Zarqawi did little to impede the group’s ability to launch attacks in the subsequent months.

The limits of the current US strategy of targeting IS leaders using airstrikes are already apparent. The Pentagon claimed in December that airstrikes had ‘successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders’ within IS, including Baghdadi’s former deputy and head of operations in Iraq. There are no indications that IS has struggled to replace these men. It seems unlikely that airstrikes alone will be able to target enough of the right leaders at a tempo that would hinder IS’ military operations and control anytime soon. And it is not clear how the US or ISF will be able to identify and locate these leaders or those that replace them. Many of them have been fighting US and Iraqi troops for over a decade, and appear able to operate despite the air campaign.

In mid-May, the defence secretary said that the US carried out a special forces raid against an IS leader in eastern Syria – the first publicly announced operation of its kind since the start of the airstrikes last August. While the US may increase such operations, it has maintained that it will not deploy a large ground force with an explicit combat role. Given this, we are doubtful that such isolated raids can inflict leadership losses fast enough to hinder the group’s operations or compromise the integrity of its command and control systems. It also does not seem that Iraqi Special Forces are able to do so at this time.

The wars in Syria and Iraq will almost certainly be protracted. Other internal or external pressures on IS leaders (including the ability to secure the allegiance of local supporters and the effectiveness of the anti-IS coalition) will probably impact the group’s capacity to control territory and ensure cohesion with its ranks. But in the next six months at least, it is difficult to see how Baghdadi or his deputies’ deaths would hinder military operations on the ground. Even though further operations to capture or kill IS leaders are likely, these will probably not lead to a sudden change in the conflict.

Image: Screenshot of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State giving a sermon on 5 July; Ritchie B. Tongo/AP/Press Association

Published: 12th June 2015
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