What’s Next for the Region Following al-Baghdadi’s Death?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


News of the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, has sparked debate across the region about the consequences of his demise. Perhaps more important, many observers and analysts have offered reasons for what may have contributed to the rise of ISIS in the first place and how to forestall the possibility of its comeback. The answer to those questions becomes more urgent, as the balance of power in the region remains in flux amidst a U.S. withdrawal from Syria and ongoing instability.

According to Mohammed Rwanduzy, a journalist for the Kurdish daily Rudaw News, news of the al-Baghdadi’s demise was warmly welcomed by Kurdish authorities in northern Syria, who then cautioned against writing off the possibility of an ISIS comeback: “The death of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an important step in the fight against ISIS but is not the end of the terror group…. KRI President Barzani asserted that the danger of ISIS’ movements becoming stronger still remains large. ‘That is why the international community should continue its assistance and cooperation, not only militarily, but [they] should also bolster their efforts and assistance to develop the education and culture of co-existence, tolerance, acceptance, and eliminating the groundwork that produces terror and people like Baghdadi’.”

Mr. Barzani’s caution against ignoring the underlying realities that gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place is reflected in various dailies and op-eds, each highlighting possible contributing factors for the appeal of organizations like ISIS. For example, Al Ahram’s Hany Ghoraby suggests “The initial expansion of IS was a product of the chaos that has tainted the Middle East region over the past decade following the Arab Spring, particularly in Iraq and Syria, and it was not due to the group’s strategic planning. It capitalized on betrayals by local army and police units in both Iraq and Syria in order to capture villages, towns and cities that had been abandoned by these forces…. Moreover, a period of complacency by Western leaders like former US president Barack Obama and former British prime minister David Cameron towards the group’s initial gains helped it to cement its presence in the region.”

In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Ghassan Charbel makes a similar argument, but then homes in on the sectarian violence that has plagued the region for some time now, as well as the monopolization of decision making by one group or another: “We should remember that ISIS emerged when countries were divided and societies were torn apart. The organization was born amid hatred, frustration, marginalization, and attempts to monopolize decision-making and annihilate the other. We must remember that ISIS was born in a fractured Iraq… in a divided Syria. It emerged amid sectarian hatred. It grabbed the opportunity of the prevalence of the logic of incursion, and when the Turkish border opened wide for roving fighters to enter Syria and nurture the blood of its uprising and its people.”

Meanwhile, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Shimrit Meir, turning her eyes toward the future, asks ‘what’s next?’ she adds that: “severing the head now is merely a symbol of the death of the whole body, thanks to the joint efforts with the Kurds. The idea died before the leader did, the Islamic State was pretty much nonexistent for two years now and has become a standard Salafi terror organization, much like al-Qaeda, the organization that birthed it…. The question at hand now is what’s next. What will rise from the smoldering ruins of the 21st century Islamic Caliphate? Apparently, the big winner is al-Qaeda. The relocation of resources and manpower by the West to deal with IS gave them time to settle down and recover – although it is possible that IS reinvents itself.”

The answer to the question will determine, to a large extent, what actions, if any, regional and international actors take to mitigate factors that may have led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. For the Saudi Gazette editorial staff, the danger of an ISIS comeback, despite al-Baghdadi’s death, is more real now than ever: “His followers will seek to hold him up as a martyr to his evil cause, just as the followers of Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden sought to memorialize him…. Daesh terrorism has not died with its leader. As Coalition forces drove their people from Iraq and pummeled them from the air in Syria, arms and explosive caches were established and sleeper cells hidden among the ordinary population. The killers still have the weaponry and personnel to commit yet more savagery. The battle to defeat them has a ways yet to go…. Moreover, individual killers have moved between groups.”

The staff at The National, on the other hand, fear that the death of the ISIS leader may further precipitate the disengagement of the international community from the region, actions, in their view, would enable remnants of the terrorist organization to regroup and become a threat again: “There is a risk that this time of global co-operation and endeavor could unravel. These efforts must be kept alive because the root causes of ISIS’s rise to power, from poverty and conflict to a lack of employment opportunities and disenfranchisement, still thrive and flourish. With fighting ongoing in Syria and a febrile atmosphere in Iraq, the potential for ISIS to re-emerge is great. The global community needs to keep working together in the fight against an ideology that seeks to seed young, impressionable minds and spread once again.”

Finally, writing for Arab News, Saudi analyst Faisal Abbas offers an alternative to a military-only approach, positing the Saudi model as a means of more lasting change: “The best way to fight terrorism, apart from militarily, is to do so on the ideological front…. The best antidote to the Daesh mentality, however, and the strongest and most effective riposte to extremist ideologies, is the program of social reforms being carried out in Saudi Arabia. They demonstrate that we believe in life, that we believe in coexistence, that we believe in tolerance…. Meanwhile, we should continue to maintain pressure on the terrorists — wherever they are, and whichever rock they are skulking under. For now, though, I believe the whole world, especially the Muslim world, should celebrate the end of the calamitous caliphate.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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