Baghdadi's death does not resolve the issues behind his rise

ISIS leader's militant ideology shrouded political message to disenfranchised Sunnis

Iraqi youth watch the news of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi death, in Najaf, Iraq October 27, 2019. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
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The death of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi does little to mitigate the factors behind his rise and may even lead to more sophisticated versions of the militancy he espoused.

His killing could lessen ISIS’s global appeal but in Syria and Iraq, site of the group’s destroyed “caliphate”, Baghdadi’s following was due to ideology, and societal and political imbalances caused by poor governance and state-backed discrimination.

US President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that US troops killed the ISIS leader in a raid on a compound in the northern Syrian governorate of Idlib.

Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a rebranded version of an Al Qaeda offshoot called Jabhat Al Nusra.

Al Qaeda also spawned ISIS as it changed into more localised versions after the US overran the group’s Afghanistan base in retaliation for the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Al Nusra capitalised on a violent Sunni backlash to the crackdown on the 2011 uprising against Assad family rule to attract recruits.

It and ISIS have been foes for years, competing over turf, resources and leadership of the ideological discourse.

But Baghdadi was killed in a sector of Idlib reportedly run by a “pragmatist” faction, indicating that former foes may have given him refuge.

This faction, led by Iraqi commander Abu Marya Al Qahtani, had not shied away from co-operation with ISIS, even though he argued for building support by winning over local communities rather than relying on brute force.

Al Qahtani warned that ISIS’s inclusion of former Saddam henchmen and avoiding confrontation with the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad was hurting the overall militant cause.

This suggests that any ISIS 2.0 could learn from its past.

Al Qaeda had given way in Iraq to a version led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who had fewer qualms about promoting indiscriminate violence than the group’s original leaders.

Al Zarqawi sought to sabotage the Shiite political ascendency in Iraq, which many Sunnis believe took place at their expense and to the advantage of Iran after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, under whom the Shiite majority were repressed.

A US raid killed Al Zarqawi in central Iraq. Many Sunnis came to the conclusion that Al Qaeda’s excesses in Iraq were damaging their chances of survival, helping to form the US-backed Sunni brigades known as Al Sahwat that eventually defeated Al Zarqawi’s faction.

After US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the government moved against Al Sahwat and cracked down on a Sunni protest movement, which contributed to the emergence of ISIS.

ISIS captured Mosul in 2014 and invaded parts of Syria, focusing more on taking territory from rebels and from Kurdish militia that had overrun Arab tribal regions, than on fighting Mr Al Assad’s forces.

Mr Al Assad is from Syria’s Alawite minority, comprising 10 per cent of the country’s pre-2011 population.

Even so, his intelligence apparatus helped Sunni militants to cross into Iraq to fight US forces and the government there after 2003.

Early in the Syrian revolt in 2011, Mr Assad released the militants he had jailed under US pressure after they returned from Iraq. Many of them went on to become commanders in Al Nusra and ISIS.

They appealed to a rural Sunni base, taking on the mantle of dispossession and disenfranchisement similar to the one promoted by Hezbollah in Lebanon on behalf of its base, and by the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

Fawaz Tello, a Syrian opposition figure who now lives in exile in Germany, warned at the start of the revolt against Mr Al Assad that without international action to halt his crackdown, which was killing of thousands of Sunnis, militancy would find fertile ground.

"ISIS or whoever comes afterwards will always seek an ideological justification to its actions that might appeal to some," Mr Tello told The National.

"But at the end of the day, ISIS is a political problem. Its solution is to end the sectarian rule in Syria and the sectarian rule in Iraq – in other words, democracy.”

From the moment he appeared in the pulpit of a Mosul mosque in 2014, Al Baghdadi portrayed himself as fulfilling an ideology that dictates a caliphate.

He presented himself as the leader of all Muslims, even though the focus of his group had been the killing of Iraqi Shiites, civilians and combatants alike.

He used humble language to assure that ISIS’s rule would be just.

After the reign of terror that followed, there are few in Iraq and Syria who will mourn Baghdadi's demise.

But their grievances are as present as the day he climbed that pulpit in Mosul.