By the time Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was killed by US troops in Idlib province in north-western Syria, he was already more a leader-in-waiting than an actual mastermind. President Donald Trump's announcement that US forces had tracked down and killed Al Baghdadi is a symbolic blow against ISIS, but the group he led will do what it has always done – evolve and adapt. So long as there are extreme social and security conditions in the Muslim world, ISIS will find bases and recruits and, from the Middle East to its global franchise, it will exploit gaps in security and take advantage of broken social contracts.
Al Baghdadi lurked in the poorly governed regions of Syria and Iraq, waiting for enough regional chaos to make a stab at establishing his caliphate for a second time. To this end, he kept a low profile. He rarely released public statements to rally his supporters, unlike Osama bin Laden in the decade after the 9/11 attacks. His movements were the subject of rumour while reports of his death were greatly exaggerated numerous times. Towards the end, Al Baghdadi was a shadow chased by numerous armies, militias and intelligence agencies rather than a potent threat.
From an operational standpoint, therefore, there will be little change to ISIS itself. The extremist group is used to losing its leaders and so Al Baghdadi's replacement will be well-prepared to slot in and take his place. The ISIS leader had already taken the step of naming his successor in August – Abdullah Qardash, an Iraqi of Turkmen origin and a former Saddam Hussein-era military officer from Tal Afar near Mosul. Details are scant on his background, except that he was appointed by Al Baghdadi to head ISIS's Muslim affairs unit in August and apparently spent time in Camp Bucca in Iraq under US custody during the war. Al Baghdadi himself was held in the camp, where he developed close ties to the men who would eventually form much of the core of ISIS.
Al Baghdadi rose through the ranks in part because of the killings of ISIS successors: Abu Ali Al Anbari, a confidant of Qardash, died in March 2016, and Al Anbari's successor Ayad Al Jumaili was reportedly killed in April 2017. Both of Al Baghdadi’s predecessors were killed when ISIS was still known as Islamic State in Iraq and before that, ISIS’s forerunner, Al Qaeda in Iraq, saw its own infamous figurehead Abu Musab Al Zarqawi killed in a US air strike in 2006. Each time, the group has found a new leader, evolved and adjusted its strategy for power.
Now that Qardash is moving in to pick up where Al Baghdadi left off, the group's system of succession goes into play to avoid a power vacuum and maintain ISIS's sense of legitimacy. Al Baghdadi’s death – which was followed by the killing of his right-hand man Abu Hassan Al Muhajir in a co-ordinated raid in northern Syria between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US army – will likely involve a new strategic shift by his successor too. Like Al Baghdadi, Qardash will have his own replacements in the ranks, ready in case something should happen to him.
This evolution is possible in large part because many of ISIS’s targets still suffer from much of the same state mismanagement, corruption and security challenges that allowed the group to emerge and declare a so-called caliphate from the pulpit of Al Nuri mosque in Mosul in 2014. In the places where ISIS franchises have opened up such as Yemen, West Africa, Egypt and Libya, the ingredients for extremism are all still present, allowing the group the ability to recruit and operate, regardless of what happens to its leadership. In Iraq and Syria, stable governance – let alone economic prosperity – remain distant. Nothing short of political and economic order in these places will extinguish the powder keg ISIS is waiting to reignite.
That will leave these ISIS pockets still focused on taking advantage of chaos and building alternative institutions to the crumbling states they exist beneath. In Syria and Iraq in particular, ISIS will reorganise and adapt to await the mistakes of the more powerful actors in the region. In Syria, it is the missteps by the US, Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran that, in their rush to reach the final phase of the Syrian war, could create security gaps for ISIS to exploit – something most recently demonstrated when the US suddenly pulled troops from the Turkish border with northeastern Syria, prompting an invasion by Ankara. In the subsequent upheaval, ISIS was able to launch attacks and break at least 100 prisoners out of detention. In Iraq, US-Iranian tensions as well as widespread grassroots protests against corruption also afford opportunities for ISIS, should each dynamic escalate to the point where the Iraqi government is unable to secure large swathes of its country.
Al Baghdadi’s death will also haunt US-Turkish relations. He was found in a town not far from the Turkish border, in Idlib province, under rebel control but where Turkey has observation posts. Although it is unlikely that Turkey supported his movements, Al Baghdadi’s choice to go to Idlib rather than Iraq and move so close to Turkey is a potential indictment of Ankara’s Syrian policies, which do not view extremist organisations like ISIS and Hayat Tahrir Al Sham in the same way that the US does. Turkey has focused on its proxy war with Bashar Al Assad's fighters, supporting militias and groups in Syria with ties to extremism and tolerating the influence of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al Sham in Idlib, a frontline of contention between Turkey and Damascus. The decision is largely based on expediency: these groups are effective fighters. But the final outcome is that Ankara's bid for influence in Idlib province as a whole ends up producing an environment in which extremists are able to take root. Ankara’s priority is preventing the emergence of a Kurdish statelet on its border, leaving breaks in the field for extremists to use. That inadvertent outcome will taint the White House’s attempts to defuse US-Turkish tensions in the wake of America’s partial withdrawal from Syria.
Additionally, Al Baghdadi’s death complicates Washington’s attempts to convince Americans, as well as its own Republican Party, that a withdrawal from Syria is justified because of the ostensibly reduced threat of ISIS. The operation was only possible because of America’s regional involvement and intelligence based on relationships. A full pullout would have seriously hampered America’s ability to hunt Al Baghdadi. Rather than prove the US can now pull out with a job well done, Al Baghdadi’s death is a reminder that America cannot carry out its counter-terrorism goals without troops close by to deploy against such targets and strong local partners such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, who were instrumental in the mission to find and kill him.
Al Baghdadi’s death is the end of a phase of ISIS. He oversaw its most potent era, in which it could take and hold territory. Now ISIS will complete its adaptation to a new type of radical group, focused on insurgency and regional franchises, each focused on their own local goals. Whoever takes over as the group’s figurehead will cement this strategy.
Ryan Bohl is a Middle East and North Africa analyst at geopolitical risk consultancy Stratfor, focused on regional strategy, security, politics and social contracts