Don’t Kill the Caliph! The Islamic State and the Pitfalls of Leadership Decapitation


The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has endured significant territorial losses since its peak a year ago. Additional coalition deployments, an improving information campaign, a resurgent Iraqi army, targeted financial sanctions, and tireless diplomacy have set the stage for the eventual reduction of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Concurrent with these efforts is a large manhunt to bring Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, its leader, to justice. While this is an important consideration, defeating this movement is a much more pressing and daunting task. The best way to defeat ISIL in the long term is to leave Abu Bakr in place – as the caliph who lost his kingdom.

Don’t take our word for ISIL’s struggles; its spokesman Mohammad al Adnani admitted as much last week when he warned that the loss of movement leaders, past or future, would not deter the “soldiers of the state” from continuing the fight as insurgents, much like they did prior to 2013. Adnani, as dramatic as ever in this latest speech, does offer a point that we should consider. The specific targeting of this group’s leadership (via a decapitation campaign) has had mixed results in the past. In fact, it was the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi that probably saved what eventually became the Islamic State of Iraq in late 2006.

We advance a new interpretation of the movement’s leader transitions in this article because we believe it is imperative for policymakers to get a better understanding of why ISIL was able to regain popular support and control territory after its significant setbacks between 2006 to 2010. Unfortunately, the answers we have heard to date are largely the product of bias — simply look at the variety books and broadcasts that literally fast forwarded through the history of the Islamic State movement (especially between 2008 and 2012). ISIL’s post-Zarqawi transitions are also significant because they offer important insights into the potential pitfalls of a leadership decapitation strategy when dealing with a charismatic leader. We hope our exploration of the broader repercussions of such targeted killings and proposed strategic-policy considerations inform a better decision-making process on how the United States approaches the issue of leadership decapitation. But first, we must begin with the story of ISIL’s return after 2006, led by a faceless man: Abu Omar al Baghdadi.

A dangerous transition

Zarqawi is now playing a harmful role in Iraq. Zarqawi is only a guest in its struggle for independence and he should understand that he must not interfere in the domestic affairs of the country by presenting himself to the world as the spokesman for the Iraqi resistance.

Hudayfa Azzam (son of Abdullah Azzam), May 2006

As the fourth year of the Iraq war began in the spring of 2006, the Islamic State movement had reached a natural growth ceiling, much like a Silicon Valley startup. Its fantastic rise from just a handful of individuals had culminated in the merger of several Salafist militant groups with the infamous Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group — under the umbrella of a political front known as the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). Goal divergence had frustrated unification under the black banner, and most of the possible candidates for inclusion in the front remained affiliated with the larger groups that constituted the Sunni resistance to occupation. Cooperation between these groups in their fight against mutual enemies had now turned to rivalry for power, largely over territory and the economic gains that come with it. Sunni tribes were bristling at their domination via AQI’s various “emirates,” such as Ramadi, that suppressed tribal authority to pave the way for an Islamic state.

Zarqawi’s promotion of takfir (excommunication) against his numerous enemies inevitably trickled down the ranks. His fighters gained a reputation for resolving inter-resistance squabbles with excessive violence. The Mujahideen Shura Council instructed Zarqawi to take a lower profile role, and the pace of his video statement releases declined significantly. Sunni rivals that were losing out to the Islamic State movement began describing Zarqawi and his lieutenants as foreigners and complaining to Osama bin Laden about his sponsorship of such a radical group.

Zarqawi was not just the founder of this movement, but its star. He had been there from the beginning, recruited its members, developed its strategy and doctrine, and was the feature act in its propaganda. He broadly fit what Max Weber and countless other scholars would describe as a charismatic leader — an individual with traits that are viewed by constituents as extraordinary and who proposes radical solutions to the maladies of the polity in question, resulting in a followership based on emotional-bonds. But, charismatic leadership is fleeting. Leaders could die or be removed, and circumstances change. Charismatic leaders emerge and thrive in organizational and socio-historical conditions characterized by crises, and their calls to rupture the prevailing status quo renders them inherently volatile. By 2006, Zarqawi had turned from advantage to affliction, creating a challenge for the Shura Council not uncommon in everyday business: managing the removal of a popular and charismatic leader and replacing him with a more stable leader possessing the right combinations of skills needed by the organization in that place and time.

The killing of Zarqawi by coalition forces in the summer of 2006 solved this dilemma for the Mujahideen Shura Council, but even then, the leadership transition spawned a crisis that took four long months to resolve. Zarqawi’s Egyptian deputy, Abu Hamza al Muhajir, was quickly announced as the leader of AQI, but even that announcement had limited meaning since AQI ostensibly was subordinate to the MSC political front. Understandably, very little is known about this period as the organizational leadership treated this critical transition as a sensitive matter. From a theoretical perspective, this is what is called “routinization,” the process by which a movement transforms from the exceptional to the routine. Boldly, the Mujahideen Shura Council decided to make a double move: It announced an alliance of tribes and resistance groups known as the “scented ones,” and they chose a tireless bureaucrat with impeccable integrity to be the first emir of the newly proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq. His nom de guerre was Abu Omar al Baghdadi, and no one took it very seriously until Abu Hamza al Muhajir, the new emir of AQI, pledged allegiance to him.

“The Faceless Man”

I have drunk from the waters of the Euphrates. I was raised on its dates and I grew up on its banks. Now is the time for loyalty. This is advice to you.

Abu Omar, Feb. 2010

While the name Abu Omar was unknown to the American military in October 2006, they were not alone. Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al Zawi had a predilection for changing nicknames each time he changed jobs, keeping a relative level of anonymity both internal to AQI and externally — a pattern recently seen with the death of Abu Ali Anbari. Zawi was a former police officer who was dismissed from the force before 2003 for his outspoken religious views, and he was the epitome of the early joiner of Zarqawi’s Islamic State movement. His Salafi beliefs had been shaped not by the faith campaign of Saddam (he hated Saddam with a passion) but by an underground religious movement that was spreading in Iraq and elsewhere in the 1980s and 90s, and whose ranks began to connect in Saddam’s prisons. Abu Omar was the imam of a mosque near Haditha — a small Anbari town on the Euphrates River — and was notorious for his strict advocacy of the Salafist methodology. After cooperating with and sheltering Zarqawi on several occasions, Abu Omar joined the movement in 2004 and served as an insurgent leader in Haditha. He was transferred to be the security manager of Baghdad for a period before being promoted to be the emir of prestigious Diyala province. By late 2005 or early 2006, he was operating as chief of staff for the Mujahideen Shura Council, with final vetting authority over the appointment of all senior level positions. Most students of organizational behavior would recognize this as the ultimate power position. According to his semi-official biography, Omar was known for heavily weighting a candidate’s ideological purity in the selection process. The comparisons between Abu Omar and Zarqawi are stark. While the latter emerged on the basis of his personality and audacity as a politico-military strategist, the former was the ultimate “company man,” steadily moving up the bureaucracy.

The incorporation of AQI’s local and regional bureaus into provincial units that mirrored the new national level hierarchy (known as an M-Form in business terminology) consumed much of the four months between Zarqawi’s death and the movement’s reset as the Islamic State of Iraq. Abu Omar most likely had a large role in this reorganization, as his bio stresses his administrative prowess rather than any heroic actions as the emir of Diyala or an insurgent leader in Haditha. Abu Omar admitted in his initial speech as the emir of the faithful that he was an unlikely choice, since he had not been the leader of one of the main groups that joined the MSC in January 2006. Each group had equal representation on the extended council regardless of size, and he was one of many from AQI and was technically junior in status to Abu Hamza, Zarqawi’s Egyptian deputy.

It is interesting that the Mujahideen Shura Council chose a skilled diplomat and bureaucrat that was accepted by all of the groups in the new Islamic state organization as its leader for the next phase of growth. It suggests a deep recognition of the critical transitions that lay ahead post-Zarqawi (i.e. post-charismatic leader). This process of routinization manifested with the transition from a charismatic leader in Zarqawi to a leader whose authority is based on what Weber would describe as “legal-rational” grounds, with elements of “traditional” grounds as well. Put simply, from a Weberian perspective, while the charismatic leader’s legitimacy as an authority is based on emotional bonds (charisma), “legal-rational” authority is based on established “rules” regarding the selection of leaders, while “traditional” authority is based on time honored traditions. When a charismatic leader is killed or removed and transition routinization occurs, it often reflects an organization or movement seeking stability in the post-charismatic vacuum. The fact that Abu Omar was an Iraqi tribal member with Qureshi ties from Anbar was an additional political chip the Mujahideen Shura Council had to play during a critical period where Anbari tribes were already breaking hard away from the Islamic State movement. Like all of the aspects of their choice of leader, this would prove to be the saving grace for an organization with more severe trials ahead.

For someone who has invariably been described as a fake Iraqi face or random selection — as if our opponents were silly enough to try and fool their own soldiers and supporters — Abu Omar had an outsized impact on the foundation of the Islamic State organization during a very trying period. RAND recently published an eye-opening view of the movement’s bureaucracy from 2005-2010 based on captured documents, and it is hard to be unimpressed by the sophistication of both its structure and its immense economic extraction engine that belatedly turned heads in 2014 when ISIL was called the richest terrorist group in the world.

Hired as a bureaucrat with the mission of building a new Islamic state, Abu Omar turned out to be an enlightened choice from the Mujahideen Shura Council’s perspective, as he was an inspiring speaker with strong political instincts. His phrase “The Islamic State is remaining….” (baqiya) used in one of his earlier speeches, became the one word trademark for the movement today. His popularization of using named operations, such as the Dignity (2008-9) and Harvest of the Good (2009-11) campaigns, focused the strategy of an organization that was under severe pressure during this time period. His carrot and stick approach to combat the influence of the Sahwa (Awakening) was a key realization that enabled ISIL to take advantage of the failure of the Iraqi government to consolidate its political gains after 2008. Instead of reconciliation, the Shia and Sunni of Iraq drifted apart, with Abu Omar’s considerable help.  By 2011, just a year after his death, ISIL’s key sanctuaries were back under control and used to spread their influence even further in a backdrop of Sunni disenfranchisement.

The post-charismatic leader

By Allah, your repentance is lovelier to me than the whole world, and I am only a faithful adviser for you. You know well that the spiteful Shia and infidel occupiers will never forget that you [Iraq’s Sunni] were the enemies of yesterday. They already began their stabs to you, so return back to us, we will not forget that you were friends of yesterday, and there is great difference between the two labels. So if you rejected repenting before you fall into our power, then by Allah to kill the apostate [i.e. Sunni Sahwa] is more likely to me than cutting hundred heads of the crusaders…

-Abu Omar, “The Promise of Allah,” Sep. 2008.

Abu Omar’s death in 2010, which took place in a flurry of intelligence aided raids that almost brought the organization down, is universally used to mark the nadir of the group. Yet it returned, which was surely as a result of the extensive internal structures created by Abu Omar and his military commander Abu Hamza. This supports Jenna Jordan’s study that found mature, bureaucratic organizations were resilient in the face of the decapitation tactic. If Abu Omar’s selection was important in building the organization’s efficiency and regaining support of its Sunni base, then what does charismatic leadership theory tell us about Omar’s grooming of his own successor, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?

Abu Omar’s skills in organization building were overshadowed by his humble roots, a characteristic that, while popular among the rank and file, left something to be desired from a prestige perspective. Again, the ISIL shura council chose a leader on the basis of, and with, legal-rational authority, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. With a PhD in religious studies, the Qureshi tribal tie, and a long pedigree as an insurgent leader within the organization, Abu Bakr was a conventional selection for a movement at this level of maturity. ISIL’s declaration of its caliphate in 2014 and presentation of Abu Bakr to the world as its caliph confirmed the legal-rational basis of his authority. As ISIL spokesman Adnani said at the time:

We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of khilāfah, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the khalīfah Ibrāhīm and support him (may Allah preserve him). The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilāfah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.

And now, as the so-called caliphate is pressured from all sides, a collapse would completely undermine the legal-rational basis of his authority. The fall of Raqqa and Mosul would leave Abu Bakr as a caliph without a kingdom. Furthermore, it would help to validate Al Qaeda’s bias against controlling territory for fear of blowback. This is a failure whose “first order effects” (the collapse of a prematurely declared caliphate and caliph) would be compounded by the loss of proto-statehood and the loss of another generation of militants and foreign fighters that followed the call to come to the Islamic State. Many of these defeats can be laid at the feet of Abu Bakr, who foolishly provoked a reluctant United States (and many others) into returning to the fight. Critically, it would represent a catastrophe for ISIL’s strategy, core ideological tenets, and propaganda campaign which is built on projecting strength and success as a manifestation of divine sanction. The caliph without a caliphate would have some explaining to do.

Key Implications

Instead of allocating disproportionate resources to targeting the soon to be caliph without a caliphate, we suggest allocating assets towards finding and destroying what some scholars call the “middle managers,” or the leaders who connect the top level to the grass roots network of cells that function in the insurgency/state that is ISIL (e.g. commanders like Shaker Waheeb al-Fahdawi). Targeting local commanders operating at provincial levels and those that connect the local commanders to ISIL’s senior leadership may be more effective. At this stage of the anti-ISIL campaign, it would create instability and uncertainty not only through the group’s “middle management” but it would also promise negative repercussions both up and down the organization. Such strikes would simultaneously make it harder for senior leaders to efficiently make command and control orders, while potentially damaging ISIL ties with its foot-soldiers and broader supporter base.

So, what if the caliph dies with his caliphate? The Adnani excerpt at the beginning of this article hints to certain prospects. If ISIL reverts to operating in the shadows yet again— using guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and propaganda as its chief politico-military tools—  then its leadership will inevitably reflect that switch. ISIL will need to appoint a replacement caliph or overarching leader. If Raqqa, Mosul, and Abu Bakr simultaneously fall, it could declare a new capital and caliph, perhaps in Libya. Then again, a new leader may be selected on the basis of a pre-established succession process. Another possibility is that in the vacuum of the caliph, a charismatic figure could emerge who, in the wake of what could only be described as a catastrophe (no matter how ISIL propaganda frames it), engages in an emergency revival of the movement (a sort of Zarqawi II). What is perhaps even more likely is that into such a monumental vacuum would emerge numerous aspiring leaders — many, although not all, presenting themselves as charismatic figures seeking to build on the capital of their affiliation with a certain leader or faction — rendering a splintering ISIL even more volatile and dangerous. Finally, there is the unwelcome possibility that with the removal of Abu Bakr, the former allies turned antagonists (ISIL and AQ) could unite.

On the surface it would seem that eliminating terrorist leaders, especially charismatic figures whose symbolic power alone is able to attract followers to a movement’s cause, is a no-brainer. Yet charismatic leadership is an inherently volatile and ephemeral form of leadership. Killing a charismatic leader may inspire a potent posthumous charismatic appeal (as was the case with Sayyid Qutb and Anwar al-Awlaki), or cause splintering that results in otherwise “suppressed” extreme factions rising in prominence thanks to the ensuing vacuum (arguably what occurred with the death of Osama bin Laden and the rise of ISIL). Alternatively, decapitation could result in the removal of a leader that was a volatile and destabilizing force in an organization under strain being replaced by a brilliant individual who helps lay the foundations for the group’s future. This is the story of the aftermath of Zarqawi’s removal and the rise of the “faceless man.” With ISIL on the ropes, let’s be sure they don’t tag in another Abu Omar.


Haroro J. Ingram is a research fellow with the Coral Bell School, Australian National University. He is the author of “The Charismatic Leadership Phenomenon in Radical and Militant Islamism” (2013). He has performed field work in Iraq recently.

Craig Whiteside is a professor at the Naval War College Monterey and a former Army officer. His unit fought in Iraq from October 2006 – December 2007, which coincided with the “routinization” of the Islamic State of Iraq, led by Abu Omar al Baghdadi. This article reflects the views of the authors and does not reflect the views of the Australian National University or the United States Naval War College, or anyone else.

Note: Special thanks to LCDR John Hancock, USN, for sharing his ideas with us from his unpublished paper on “Abu Omar – the Faceless Man;” the student from Anna Simons class who talked with us about “shaping the bench;” and other students at the Naval Postgraduate School who shared their stories on chasing the “ghosts” between 2008 and 2011.