Islamic State: the Hunchback is no more but where is the Caliph?

Summary: amid much death, destruction and displacement, the recapture of the last remaining parts of Mosul under IS control could be completed very soon. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed. Even if he has not, IS as a territorial entity in Iraq (and Syria) seems to be coming to an end. That may not, however, be the end of the story.

On 4 July 2014, from the pulpit of the 12th century al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s proclaimed himself Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State. (The establishment of the Islamic State had been announced five days earlier.) Tuesday next week marks the third anniversary of Baghdadi’s proclamation.

We last looked at Mosul in our post of 12 April 2017, “The Battle for Western Mosul continues.” Since then, the struggle to eject IS fighters from the western half of the city has continued to go the Iraqi government’s way. IS counter-attacks in recent days have failed to halt the advance of government forces and the recapture of the city could be completed very soon.

It has, however, taken a long time to get to this point (the battle for western Mosul began on 19 February) and casualties have been heavy. This month alone, almost 1,000 civilians have died at the hands of IS and as a result of coalition airstrikes or action by Iraqi government forces; some have died of starvation. According to the Iraqi authorities, 419,000 civilians have been displaced since February, with over 320,000 of them living in camps or other emergency sites around the city. As many as 50,000 civilians may still be trapped in those parts of Mosul still held by IS.

Mosul’s cultural heritage has suffered too. On 21 June, the al-Nuri mosque and its famous leaning minaret, “the hunchback” (al-hadba’) were destroyedAccording to the US-led coalition and Haidar al-Abadi, the Prime Minister of Iraq, IS was the culprit   For its part, IS has blamed a coalition airstrike for the destruction. But IS is the most likely perpetrator, with the likely motivation a desire to deny the government the symbolic victory of gaining control of the place from which the Caliphate was proclaimed. (This would not be the first time IS had done serious damage to Iraqi monuments, although previous acts of cultural vandalism have targeted pre-Islamic sites.)

As for the Caliph, his whereabouts remain unknown, as does his state of health. He has not been seen in public since his speech on 4 July 2014. His last audio recording, calling on IS fighters to stand firm in the face of the Iraqi government operation to drive them out of Mosul, dates from November last year. On 16 June, Russian officials said they might have killed Baghdadi during an airstrike on a meeting of IS leaders in Syria on 28 May. Last week, they said they were increasingly confident that they had done so. US officials are not so sure, there having been many previous reports of Baghdadi’s death, none of which has been confirmed. Equally, they have no evidence that he is still alive, although one source says that he saw him in Bukamal (on the Syrian side of the border) earlier this year.

If Baghdadi is still alive, he is probably somewhere in the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands. (He is not likely to be in Raqqa, the IS ‘capital’ in Syria, as units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by the US coalition are advancing into that city.) However, even the borderlands are not as safe as they were, for members of IS. The town of Ba’aj, on the Iraqi side of the border, which had been under insurgent (most recently IS) control since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and was believed to be one of Baghdadi’s favoured hideouts, fell to pro-government forces four weeks ago.

As the area under IS control (on both sides of the border) shrinks, so the probability of Baghdadi being killed or captured increases (assuming, of course, that he is still alive). He is more likely to go down fighting rather than surrender: it seems inconceivable that he would offer (as Saddam did, as he emerged from his subterranean hiding-place in December 2003) to negotiate.

If Baghdadi is dead (or when he is killed or captured), whoever takes over from him as head of IS will almost certainly be someone with a different sort of background. Following the extensive attrition of other IS leaders resulting from coalition air-strikes, Baghdadi’s two leading lieutenants are currently former military officers from the Saddam era, Iyad al-Obaidi and Ayad al-Jumaili. (The Iraqi-Baathist military component in IS was always a good deal stronger than the organisation’s Islamist character suggested.) If either Obeidi or Jumaili succeeds, he will take the title of amir (in this context, the approximate equivalent of “leader”), rather than claim to be caliph. For one thing, neither has the necessary religious credentials to be a caliph; for another, once IS has lost control of Mosul and Raqqa and most of the places in between, there will be no territory for a caliph to rule.

The collapse of the Caliphate as a territorial entity and the demise of Baghdadi will not necessarily mean the end of IS. For that to happen, or for the emergence of a similar successor movement to be prevented, the grievances of Iraq’s Arab Sunni minority will have to be satisfactorily addressed. For the moment, there is little sign that the government has done the planning necessary to achieve this objective.

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