Rumors have been flying around the Internet over the last week about Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-styled “Caliph Ibrahim” of the Islamic State, being caught in a Coalition airstrike against Daash leadership. Daash’s own media have acknowledged that he is wounded, and the waters were further muddied on November 10 by a report put out by Iraq News that al I’tisaam, Daash’s media arm, had acknowledged his death. As it turned out, the report was massaged by the Iranian Al Asam media network. It was Iranian propaganda.
Then, on Nov 13th, an audio message purportedly from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was released, dated Nov 10. Apparently, he is still alive.
Does it really matter in the long run? Several people on social media already started crowing about it before anything was confirmed one way or another; one such post said, “No caliph, no caliphate.” But so far, Daash has shown little need for its central leader.
Daash elements have operated with a flexibility that suggests loose “Commander’s Intent” sort of instructions rather than close guidance from central command. The pervasive story that al Baghdadi is masked whenever speaking to his commanders further suggests that he is more of a figurehead than a serious operational commander. There is even the question of whether or not any such person as “Abu Bakr al Baghdadi” exists, or if he’s a sock puppet for someone else, such as Izzat Ibrahim al Douri.
Daash is the latest incarnation of decentralized Salafist movements. Al Qaeda was the beginning (naturally, since Daash is an outgrowth of it). While there might be figureheads or “spiritual leaders,” targeting those leaders does not cripple the organization. Zarqawi’s death did not cripple AQI. Bin Laden’s death did not cripple Al Qaeda. (While it may be argued that AQ is now marginalized, it is not because of Bin Laden’s death, but rather Daash’s defiance and subsequent success. Daash has become the “strong horse.”)
Like AQ before it, Daash is a hydra. It is a movement, not a cult of personality. Cut off one head, two more will replace it. Only by attacking the body, disrupting the network, and driving a wedge between Daash and the tribes will there be any hope of destroying it. A few bombs on a few individuals are straws in the whirlwind.