In a guest opinion piece for Informed Comment, Christopher Anzalone asks if the Reported Killings of the Islamic State of Iraq’s two senior Leaders spell the end of the Self-styled Jihadi State.
Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the head of al-Qa ‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers/Iraq (AQI), were both reportedly killed early in the morning Sunday (April 18) in battle with U.S. and Iraqi security forces 10 kilometers southwest of Tikrit. The killings were confirmed on Monday by General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq, in a press release , and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki held up photographs said to be of the two before and after death at a press conferece (warning: graphic ).
Al-Muhajir’s assistant and al-Baghdadi’s son were also reportedly killed, along with a U.S. soldier, and sixteen other suspected militants were arrested. The ISI has, as of this writing, not confirmed or denied the deaths of its two senior leaders. Nonetheless, reports of their deaths, which have traveled fast, call into question the level of impact the demise of al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir, if true, will have on the ISI, a self-styled jihadi state. Will their deaths effectively mark the end of the jihadi state experiment in Iraq?
The ISI is an umbrella organization for several of the most violent jihadi–takfiri insurgent groups operating in the country, the largest of them being AQI. (“Jihadi” because they foreground a supposed duty of the individual to wage holy war, contrary to normative teachings of Islam; and ‘takfiri’ because they excommunicate all those with whom they disagree, making them ‘kafirs.’) The “founding” of the ISI was announced in a video statement released online in October 2006, and it replaced an earlier umbrella, the Mujahideen Shura Council. Al-Baghdadi, who real name the U.S. and Iraqi government say is Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi, has been designated the jihadi “commander of the faithful” (amir al-mu’mineen), a title reserved by Sunni Muslims for the caliph, the rightful head of an (ideally) unified Islamic state. The ISI claims that he is a member of the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh, and his specific clan within the tribe, the Hashemites.
Al-Baghdadi was addressed by senior al-Qa‘ida Central (AQC) leaders as a proto-caliph of the unified Islamic state that the group and its regional allies and affiliates hoped to establish across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia. AQC’s chief ideologue and deputy commander, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged other Iraqi jihadi-insurgent groups, such as Ansar al-Islam, to join the ISI under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, to no avail, in order to unify the “forces of monotheism” under a single banner. A series of audio messages from al-Baghdadi have been released over the past several years, the last being two concerning Iraq’s March parliamentary elections. He has never appeared on film. Al-Baghdadi’s condemnation of the elections and call for their rejection was largely ignored, as was a “curfew” announced by the ISI days before the elections were held. I previously argued that this marked the ISI’s continuing decline.
Al-Muhajir, who is also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, succeeded Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi as head of AQI when the latter was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006. He has rarely appeared on film and has communicated with his followers largely through audio messages released on the Internet. These messages have covered a number of topics, including a series of lectures on the jurisprudence of jihad in its military form and the importance of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, for sacrifice and armed struggle against the “enemies of Islam.”
Al-Muhajir was most recently featured in the video Ghazwat al-Asir 1, released on March 29, the first video in presumably a series produced by the ISI to highlight its “Expedition of the Prisoner” bombing campaign in Baghdad. The group has targeted a number of Iraqi government ministries and buildings, along with hotels and the Iranian, Egyptian, and German embassies. The video painted the first series of attacks in the campaign, which targeted the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs, as revenge for the arrest, torture, and murder of Iraqi Sunnis by the Shi‘i-dominated Iraqi central government. The killings of al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir, the senior leaders of the al-Qa‘ida vein of the Iraqi insurgency, if confirmed, are a significant blow to the jihadi–takfiri state project in Iraq.
General Odierno has said, “The death of [al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir] is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.” While their deaths, if confirmed, are a significant achievement, their importance should not yet be overestimated. To put the issue into historical context, it should be remembered that the killing of al-Zarqawi, the founder of AQI and public face of the Iraqi insurgency from 2003 until his death in June 2006, did not end either his organization or the wider insurgency. Indeed, AQI, the MSC and then the ISI continued to enjoy a “golden age” well into 2007. It was not the death of al-Zarqawi that marked the beginning of AQI’s decline. Rather, it was the group’s own mistakes, namely overstepping its bounds by targeting members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes and arrests of ISI leaders and media personnel, such as its “minister of information” Khalid al-Mashhadani in July 2007, combined with the presence of tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers due to the “surge” that led to AQI’s severe reversal of fortunes in mid to late 2007 and into 2008.
The long-term importance of al-Baghdadi’s and al-Muhajir’s deaths depends a great deal on the level to which the ISI still remains a viable social movement in Iraq. While it has never enjoyed widespread active support per se in the country, the ISI nonetheless remains a potent force in the insurgency, and indeed it is the country’s most lethal. It carried out some of its most deadly attacks, in terms of casualties, after al-Zarqawi’s death. Since last August, the ISI has carried out a number of highly-coordinated and massive kamikaze vehicle bombings against Iraqi government targets and foreign embassies in Baghdad, making a strategic decision to forgo frequency for potency in its attacks. The latest round of its “Expedition of the Prisoner” bombing campaign struck the Iranian, German, and Egyptian embassies in the Iraqi capital.
On the other hand, the ISI lacks the deep social roots enjoyed by many religious-nationalist groups in the Middle East, such as the Lebanese Twelver Shi‘i movement Hezbollah and HAMAS in Palestine. Both of these groups have also suffered the killings of senior leaders, Hezbollah the assassination of Shaykh ‘Abbas al-Musawi by Israel in 1992 and HAMAS the assassination, also by Israel, of many of its founders between 2002 and 2004 including Shaykh Ahmad Yassin and Dr. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Rantissi. However, unlike the ISI, both Hezbollah and HAMAS had and continue to have extensive roots in their respective societies and command sizeable constituencies among the Lebanese and Palestinian publics. Thus, both groups were equipped with the necessary social resources and support to survive the killings of senior leaders. In the case of Hezbollah, the killing of its leader actually brought on the group’s “golden age” under the guidance of a new, more charismatic leader, al-Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah.
In contrast, the ISI and AQI lack the long historical ties to other social groups within the society in which they operate and they do not enjoy widespread public support. Indeed, AQI and the ISI were founded and have been led since their inception mostly by foreigners who lack strong ties to important social groups in Iraqi society. Although AQI was able to survive the death of its founder, in large part due to the prevailing social conditions of the time, namely a raging civil war between Iraqi Sunni and Shi‘i Arab militias, the killing of both al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir may speed up the jihadi state’s ongoing decline.
The potential for this result is increased due to the fact that al-Baghdadi was not just the head of the ISI but also viewed by both top jihadi–takfiri leaders like al-Zawahiri and the transnational jihadi–takfiri movement at large as a proto-caliph. Reports of his and al-Muhajir’s death was first met by blustery disbelief and denial on many of the jihadi–takfiri web forums, but this has slowly begun to give way to mournful acceptance by some users, who pray that the two are “granted the highest level of Paradise (Jannat al-Firdaws),” if the reports turn out to be accurate. While it will take some time both to see if the reports of al-Baghdadi’s and al-Muhajir’s deaths are true and, if so, what impact they will have on the ISI, it is clear that the “golden age” of the self-styled jihadi state has passed. Although it is still capable of carrying out deadly attacks, it can no longer operate with impunity as it did and AQI did from 2003-2007. The al-Qa‘ida-style transnational jihadi–takfiri state experiment in Iraq has failed.
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures