The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, is not the end of ISIS. But what ISIS becomes now is not clear either.
Some believe that Baghdadi’s elimination last week, and now the movement’s official spokesman, Abu al-Hassan, al-Muhajir, as well, is symbolic but not much more. Revolutionary insurgencies and terrorist organizations usually have a succession arranged in case the top leader is killed. A new ISIS leader will be named in the next several days and the overall danger is undiminished.
ISIS will go on in various countries as a combination of guerilla war and terrorist network. It may be less centrally organized than before but just as lethal.
The other judgment (which I share) is that killing Baghdadi is of considerable significance. Baghdadi established ISIS. He was the founding father, the heroic leader. He was the caliph of the new Islamic State created in a Blitzkrieg war across Syria and Iraq, just as Prophet Muhammad’s army swept out of the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century. Baghdadi was the personification of Islam’s long-awaited resurrection and return to dignity. Several hundred thousand local and foreign fighters and their families travelled long distances to live in a sharia state. These people pledged their lives to him. Often the foreign fighters were the most dedicated. Only a few years after the events, it’s too easy to forget this.
The story of ISIS/Islamic State is nothing new. It’s just the most recent version of a recurring historical phenomenon. ISIS represents an ideology, an “idea.” It’s a fanaticism that at its very core is totalitarian. It can’t be otherwise because what a political movement does on the outside is a function of what it is inside itself.
ISIS’s relation to the Islamic State resembles the Nazi party’s relation to the Third Reich and the Bolshevik party’s relation to the Soviet Union. The party and the state are a totalitarian party-state, focused on a heroic leader. Islamic State is about religious supremacy, Nazism for race supremacy, and communism for class supremacy.
It was vitally important to smash the Islamic State as a regime ruling a territory, to prevent it from becoming permanent. It was vital that the Islamic State go the way of the Third Reich rather than that of the Soviet Union.
ISIS will go on making war. But now it’s a decentralized guerilla insurrection in various countries. The dream of a global Islamic caliphate governing huge territories is dead.
A disillusioned ISIS may well change its name, and this may confuse Western discussion about it. ISIS itself was created with a new name, successor to an earlier group whose leader was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Furthermore, local ISIS networks are likely to merge with other jihadist groups, even al-Qaeda.
At bottom, Islamist jihad is a fanaticism or it is nothing. It is intense emotion and extreme passion focused in a political movement. ISIS is surely about war and destruction. But if war and looting was the main attraction, hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi militants plus tens of thousands of foreign fighters and their families would not have joined up, travelled long distances to live in a sharia state, would have pledged themselves to Caliph Baghdadi.
I was always skeptical about the numbers. Could there really be so many fighters, so many wives and children, in the hundreds of thousands? The answer seems to be yes. In a recent email conversation, New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi confirmed that, amazingly, in the last small Islamic State refuge, the village of Baghuz, about 70,000 Islamic State people—most of them women and children, came out in the last month. They had been surviving in houses, tents and tunnels. Estimates varied between perhaps 50,000 and 70,000 but the number was in any case in the tens of thousands.
It’s often said that an ideology can’t be killed. True enough, but that’s not the end of the story. The number of people that believe in it can be ground down. And as the ranks thin, the intensity of their belief will wither. Continuing failure has consequences.
The goal of the U.S.-led military action was to reduce the fight against ISIS to local and national police action against local terrorist attacks. Countries such as the U.S. and France are blessed in this sense. Syria and Iraq are not so lucky.
This article was originally published on Real Clear World.