Jihadi leaders are not billiard balls

Recently, an argument has circulated that killing the leaders of terrorist groups—pursuing the strategy of “decapitation”—is ineffective and possibly counterproductive to counterterrorism efforts. My new analysis paper for the Brookings Institution, From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State, suggests otherwise. With respect to the Islamic State, leadership matters.

True, al-Qaida did not end with Osama Bin Laden’s death, though it has been significantly weakened. It is also true, as Jenna Jordan points out in a new article, that “even if [terrorist] organizations are weakened after the killing or arrest of their leaders, they tend to survive, regroup and continue carrying out attacks.” 

And yet, jihadi leaders are not all the same. As with politicians or heads of state, there are varying levels of competence and effectiveness. It would be a mistake to see jihadi leaders as billiard balls: as essentially interchangeable vessels of jihadi ideology. The Islamic State is a case in point.

Founded in October 2006 as the Islamic State of Iraq—but known informally as “the Islamic State” from the very beginning—the group has had two sets of leaders. The first comprised “Commander of the Faithful” Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, a former Iraqi police officer, and his Egyptian deputy Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, both of whom were killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in April 2010. If you have never heard of these men before, it is partly because they were distinctly unremarkable. The first Baghdadi was for years rumored to be an actor playing a fictional character, and even the U.S. military was convinced of this at one point. In his audio statements, Baghdadi was at pains to point out that he was in fact a real person. 

The first leaders left behind some 17 hours of audio statements, on which my paper draws a great deal. These are highly revealing with regard to the Islamic State’s strategy and ideology, as they were almost certainly written by the group’s Shari‘a Council. What they also reveal is that the leaders had a hard time pronouncing the words before them. In their long-winded speeches, Baghdadi and Muhajir committed numerous grammatical and vocalization errors. This led a top al-Qaeda ideologue to write the duo in spring 2007, counseling shorter speeches so as to limit these embarrassing “slipups.”

The group’s current leaders, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Syrian Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, are a significant improvement. For one thing, they possess unmistakable scholarly proclivities, Baghdadi having a Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence and ‘Adnani having taught Islamic theology in jihadi training camps. There are no pronunciation errors here. For another, they exhibit a strategic acumen wholly lacking in their predecessors. Instead of publicly boasting about groundless successes, these men bided their time while the Americans left Iraq, silently laying the groundwork for a comeback that they announced only in 2012. Meanwhile, they turned the turmoil in Syria to their advantage in a way by no means inevitable. Objectively speaking, these men are learned, eloquent, and, most important, effective. The Islamic State’s success since 2013, while contingent on numerous factors from the Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war, seems inconceivable apart from its new, more effective leadership. 

This is not to say that eliminating these leaders would spell the end of the Islamic State, but rather that their demise could significantly weaken it. For all we know, the group may have a talented successor to Baghdadi lined up. Indeed, the 2010 statement elevating Baghdadi to “commander of the faithful” named a certain Abu ‘Abdallah al-Hasani al-Qurashi as deputy. Also a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe, ‘Abdallah would thus be a candidate for the office of caliphate when Baghdadi goes. It is an open question, however, whether he or any other successor could really take over the role of the now larger-than-life Baghdadi. This man, one can be certain, is no mere actor.