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Death of Baghdadi

In two operations conducted on 26 October in Syria's Idlib and Aleppo provinces, US special operations forces killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the group's spokesperson and right-hand Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir. The US operation likely took place with differing degrees of assistance and co-ordination from other parties, including Turkey, Syria, Russia, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and potentially even the jihadist Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib province, albeit indirectly. The Turkish Defense Ministry claimed that it had engaged in "information exchange and coordination" with the US military prior to the operation. This was denied by a US official speaking to US media.

Significance

The Islamic State had already gone underground and dispersed into semi-autonomous cells following its conventional warfare 'defeat' in early 2019 as a territorial entity in Syria and Iraq, with the organization's central command no longer involved in running its day-to-day operations. These cells will likely maintain within their ranks the more ideologically committed fighters, especially non-Syrian and non-Iraqi Arab and western foreign fighters. Additionally, various localized factions had kept the Islamic State brand but were fighting for their own reasons. They are likely to continue to do so, entailing a continuation of Islamic State-aligned attacks on security forces in northeast Syria and the Anbar, Nineveh, and Diyala governorates in Iraq.

However, the Islamic State's ambitions to revive its 'caliphate' will be severely undermined by Baghdadi's absence. The Islamic State had never publicly appointed a deputy leader, although media reports suggest that al-Muhajir was unofficially carrying out this role. The organization is likely to find it hard to get someone with the administrative skills, financial expertise, and outreach of Baghdadi, let alone his religious credentials. However, Syrian jihadists are likely to be more prone to switching sides to join either the jihadist HTS in Idlib province or Turkey-backed opposition groups currently fighting alongside Turkey in northeast Syria, which would undermine

Turkey's efforts to stamp out jihadist leanings in those forces. Lastly, revenge attacks are likely by Islamic State supporters not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Turkey. Whoever takes over the organization is likely to feel compelled to conduct attacks in order to prove the continued existence of the organization after Baghdadi. Due to the urgent and impromptu nature of these attacks, they might be hampered by undeveloped planning, resources, and mitigating measures by security forces.

Posted 05 November 2019 by Columb Strack, Principal Analyst – Middle East and North Africa, Country Risk, IHS Markit and

Ege Seckin, Principal Analyst, Country Risk, IHS Markit and

Ludovico Carlino, Senior Analyst, Country Risk – Middle East and North Africa

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