Kill Ibrahim? The Pros and Cons of Targeting ISIL’s Leadership


For the third time in the last six months, reports are emerging from Iraq that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph and leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has narrowly survived a U.S. airstrike. The Guardian recently reported al-Baghdadi was severely wounded in a March airstrike in the al-Baaj district of Nineveh province near the Syria-Iraq border. While details are sparse — Martin Chulov has subsequently reported that al-Baghdadi suffered spinal damage — al-Baghdadi’s condition was allegedly critical enough to prompt frantic meetings by senior ISIL officials who appointed a stand-in leader while al-Baghdadi is incapacitated.

There is cause to be skeptical of this development. In addition to the previous inaccurate accounts of al-Baghdadi being injured in November and December, Iraqi officials reported his predecessors — Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri — as having been killed numerous times prior to their actual demise in April 2010. Even more implausibly, the Iranian news agency FARS has reported that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died while receiving treatment in an Israeli hospital. Meanwhile, defense officials told The Daily Beast that the March 18 air strike was not aimed at a high-value target and that they “have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi.”

Whatever al-Baghdadi’s current condition, it is worth considering how his death or incapacitation would impact ISIL’s operations and the threat the terrorist pseudo-state poses to America and our allies. Counterintuitively, al-Baghdadi’s death may actually make ISIL more dangerous to U.S. interests, a possibility that argues for the necessity of a broader strategy to combat the Salafist-jihadi threat emanating from Syria and Iraq.

The academic literature on the effectiveness of killing terrorist leaders is frustratingly inconclusive. Some scholars argue that targeting the group’s leadership reduces its operational capability by eliminating its most skilled and inspirational members, and by forcing the group to concentrate on self-protection rather than conducting attacks. One analysis of 207 terrorist groups from 1970 to 2008 found that “leadership decapitation significantly increases the mortality rate of terrorist groups.” Another study of 118 decapitation attempts from a sample of 90 counterinsurgency campaigns demonstrates that “campaigns are more likely to end quickly when … successfully target[ing] enemy leaders.” Conversely, other studies have argued that leadership decapitation is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst in terms of increasing and intensifying short term terrorist activity, or that its success depends on a group’s organizational resilience. My own research on the topic suggests that operationally successful manhunts only translate to strategic success when paired with broader strategies to undermine the adversary’s effectiveness.

So broadly speaking, academia’s unsatisfactory answer to the question of whether killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would weaken ISIL is: “It depends.”

Looking specifically at ISIL, many observers have argued that al-Baghdadi’s death would have little impact on ISIL’s operational capacity. In December, Ahmed Ali of the Institute for the Study of War noted that “ISIS’s leadership bench and command structure are deep.” The Soufan Group reports that ISIL’s governance structure includes two major military and administrative bodies — the Shura Council and the Sharia Council — and The New York Times reported last summer that al-Baghdadi’s deputies include 12 walis, or local rulers; a three-man war cabinet; and eight others who manage portfolios like finance, prisoners and recruitment. These regional leaders have been given a great deal of autonomy, but are easily replaced, leading one U.S. military official to observe: “We’ve killed the emir of Mosul multiple times, and he has been replaced multiple times.” Finally, some have pointed to Der Spiegel’s recent revelation of documents suggesting that ISIL, in its current iteration, was masterminded by a former colonel in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence apparatus and that al-Baghdadi was merely a figurehead necessary to give the group a “religious face.”

Yet these observations — even if correct — miss a broader point. At present, ISIL likely does not have the capability to conduct a mass casualty attack against the U.S. homeland. However, U.S. intelligence officials estimate that 20,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups, and according to Europol some 5,000 European nationals — with around 1,000 each from Britain and France — have now joined ISIL. It is what these Western passport-holding jihadists may do after returning from months or years of radicalization and training in a terrorist safe haven that poses a strategic threat to the United States and gives U.S. officials nightmares. And it is precisely ISIL’s control over territory, and the call of the caliphate, that has galvanized zealots around the world and attracted would-be recruits to its cause.

Even if al-Baghdadi is merely a figurehead, there is an important reason why he fills that role. In order for there to be a caliphate there must be a caliph, who according to tradition must meet several requirements: He must be at least 15 years old, have no mental illness or physical or health problems, would need to be considered a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and possess scholarly knowledge of religious jurisprudence. Al-Baghdadi meets all these criteria. As a member of the Quraysh tribe, Baghdadi can claim direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. He also holds a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. No other figure in ISIL has been publicly cultivated to claim the position of caliph along these criteria, and an openly Ba’athist revival would be unable to draw such widespread support.

Thus, ISIL is heavily invested in the image of al-Baghdadi as its basis for claiming to be a state and caliphate. Without him, this claim may be discredited, and ISIL would face difficulties attracting the foreign fighters that have both sustained its gains on the battlefield and who pose the greatest threat to America and its allies.

Yet depending on who succeeds al-Baghdadi, his death could pose new — and perhaps greater — dangers. Newsweek, citing Iraqi government adviser Hisham al-Hashimi, reports that Abu Alaa Afri has been installed as the stand-in leader of the terror group in al-Baghdadi’s absence and ISIL’s permanent leader if al-Baghdadi dies. A former physics teacher from Mosul, Afri was reportedly bin Laden’s preferred candidate to become emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010 when Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and al-Masri were killed. Afri purportedly favors reconciliation with “core” al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. This would represent the worst of both worlds: Whereas ISIL under al-Baghdadi has focused on targeting populations it considers apostates — i.e. Shi’a, Yazidis, and Christians — and Arab regimes, al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra have maintained the terror network’s original aim of attacking Western targets. Last September the Obama administration justified airstrikes on al-Qaeda’s cell in Syria (“the Khorasan group”) citing intelligence reports that the group “was in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland,” and last month an Ohio man, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, was arrested after being sent back to the United States by Jabhat al-Nusra to conduct terror attacks against either military or police targets. An ISIL/al-Qaeda reconciliation would potentially put tens of thousands of jihadists at the latter’s disposal to conduct attacks against the United States and its allies.

Even absent such reconciliation, Afri’s ascension would pose another threat to the United States. Afri is reportedly a follower of Abu Musab al-Suri, a prominent al-Qaeda strategist who opposed the 9/11 attacks, correctly predicting the Western backlash in response would significantly damage the terror network. Instead, al-Suri is the preeminent theorist of “leaderless jihad,” in which Muslims would establish decentralized cells that would acquire the tactical knowledge necessary to conduct attacks via the Internet. ISIL has already proved it is adept at spreading its message using Western-based social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, and SoundCloud. If this social media skill was used to orchestrate a strategic campaign of low-tech, decentralized attacks against Western targets — think Mumbai 2008 or the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi — such a “starfish” network would exponentially increase the danger posed by “Lone Wolves” such as the Tsarnaev Brothers or the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

From a moral perspective, the world would undoubtedly be a better place without Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has overseen mass executions, public beheadings, rape, child and sexual enslavement, and symbolic crucifixion displays to terrorize ISIL’s enemies, not to mention attempted genocide against the Yazidi in Iraq. And in order to defeat ISIL, most of its leadership will have to be violently removed from the battlefield, either by U.S. forces or by our allies and proxies.

But just as the exile of the Chiricahua and Warms Springs Apaches were necessary to prevent future insurgencies after Geronimo’s capture in 1886, Che Guevara’s 1967 killing was part of a broader Bolivian counterinsurgency strategy, and U.S. forces neutralized the entire Panamanian Defense Force concurrently while hunting Manuel Noriega in 1989, a decapitation campaign against ISIL will not be strategically effective unless it is part of a more comprehensive effort. Specifically, the current sanctuary for Salafist-jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq must be destroyed. This requires not only defeating ISIL militarily, but also eroding ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra’s support networks within Iraq and Syria’s Sunni populations. Iraq’s Sunni tribes are not going to fight ISIL if the alternative is Iranian domination, and alleviating the suffering of Syria’s Sunni population by toppling the Assad regime would undercut the most important engine of ISIL recruitment. There also needs to be an implementable plan for providing essential services and re-establishing government legitimacy in these areas where jihadists have been able to prey upon Sunni insecurity.

In the end, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s condition is less important than the health and vitality of the Obama administration’s broader strategy to defeat ISIL and other terrorist groups exploiting Syria and Iraq’s instability.


Benjamin Runkle is a former Defense Department official, Director on the National Security Council, and Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee. He is the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.