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Why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's 'death' could signal a beginning to the end of the Islamic State

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) told Newsweek that the monitoring group was informed by Baghdadi's death by the extremist group and that it will soon announce his successor.

Abhinav Ranjan Written by: Abhinav Ranjan New Delhi Updated on: July 11, 2017 19:30 IST

The end of the deadliest jihadist militant outfit Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could be just around the corner with reports suggesting that its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed somewhere near the Iraqi border recently. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) told Newsweek that the monitoring group was informed by Baghdadi's death by the extremist group and that it will soon announce his successor.

“We have confirmed (his death) from information from one of our activists in Deir Ezzor, they confirmed that Baghdadi has died," Newsweek quoted Rami Abdelrahman, director of SOHR, as saying. Rami, however, could not confirm that how the ISIS leader was killed but said that it happened near the Iraqi border.

From last three months, he was living in east Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria, which remains largely under ISIS control even as the group is losing territory elsewhere in the country and in neighbouring Iraq. Abdel Rahman said Baghdadi "was present in eastern parts of Deir Ezzor province" in recent months, but it was unclear if he was killed in the area or elsewhere.

Citing Iraqi news agency al-Sumaria News, Xinhua too reported that ISIS circulated a brief statement through its media in the (IS-held) town of Tal Afar in the west of Mosul, confirming the killing of its leader. 

Today’s report comes a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally declared Mosul liberated from the ISIS after nearly nine months of fierce fighting to dislodge the extremist militants from their last major stronghold in Iraq.


Who is al-Baghdadi?

al-Baghdadi was also known as Abu Du’a. It was in 2013 when al-Qaeda in Iraq changed its name to ISIS and stepped up its attacks across Iraq and Syria. A year later, the ISIS had announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate and al-Baghdadi was named its Caliph (a religious successor to the Islamic prophet).

On July 5 the same year, a video showing him making a speech at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul in Iraq was released. In the clip, Baghdadi declared himself the world leader of Muslims and called on Muslims everywhere to support him.

Contrary to his present day image, Baghdadi has been described as shy and unimpressive during his youth and even remained unnoticed and was pegged as insignificant. What the world probably didn't realise was that the same insignificant individual would later emerge as the face of the demon.

al-Baghdadi, who had declared himself as the ruler of a new Islamic Empire, was the mastermind behind horrendous bloodshed across the world. He claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Iraq since 2011, the June 2013 operations against the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and the March 2013 suicide-bombing assault on the Ministry of Justice, among several other attacks against Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi citizens going about their daily lives.

Attacks linked/inspired by ISIS since January 2015 (outside Iraq and Syria):

India Tv - ISIS


In 2011, he was listed as the Specially Designed Global Terrorist by the US State Department under Executive Order 13224. The US had also announced a reward of up to $10 million (Rs 67 crore) for information leading to his capture or death. Only the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has a larger reward offered for his capture or death -- $25 million (Rs 167.5 crore). He is also listed by the United Nations Security Council 1267/1989 al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee.

On the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Baghdadi urged the masses to retaliate violently, condemning the death of their ‘great-great’ leader. Following the death of Laden, ISIS pledged to carry out 100 attacks across Iraq and soon emerged as a force much deadlier than the Al Qaeda.

However, with the attacks ramping up, the ISIS soon came under collective attack from many affected countries, leading to consequences for the terror outfit.

ISIS loses top fighters

There was a time when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria appeared unstoppable. But the group faced setbacks on the battlefield in both Iraq and Syria in recent months.

The news of al-Baghdadi’s death has come almost two months after the group’s second-in-command Abu al-Hija alias Haji Imam (a leader of the Tunisia branch) was killed in US raid in Syria.

The killing of Haji Imam, a deputy commander for the group, marked a significant blow to the extremist group. Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry had authorized a $7 million (Rs 47 crore roughly) reward for information on his whereabouts.

The airstrikes by coalition forces have killed hundreds of prominent ISIS militants in both Syria and Iraq. Those killed include Omar al-Shishani, the group’s ‘Minister for War’ and Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as Jihadi John. Emwazi (27) was of the world’s most wanted men after beheading Western hostages including Britons Alan Henning and David Haines in gruesome videos.

India Tv - Jihadi John

Jihadi John

Speaking to media on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said that the US had carried out 13,000 airstrikes and killed 120 ISIS leaders and commanders.

“I want to reiterate our objective in this fight. Our mission is to destroy ISIL,” he said, adding that “Our B-52 bombers are hitting ISIL with precision strikes. Targets are being identified and hit even more quickly. So far, 13,000 airstrikes.”

“So far we have taken out more than 120 top ISIL leaders and commanders. And our message is clear, that if you target American and our allies, you will not be safe. You will never be safe,” the President said.

In March, Iraqi forces had killed Mohammed Salman al-Sabawi, a top ISIS commander in Nineveh province, along with other militants. Before this, US forces eliminated the group’s most notorious commanders Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli and Omar al-Shishani.

The most recent was the killing of Maher al-Bilawi, the commander of ISIS in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

The other militants who were killed in recent times are: propagandist and kidnapper-in-chief Abul-Athir, Nineveh province commander Thaher Mohammed Salman al-Sabawi, top leader of ISIS Sharia Court Abu Ali Sha'i, ISIS security affairs leader Abu Aisha, member of ISIS Council of Military Affairs Abu Saif, top financial provider Rafiuddin and top commander of group’s police branch Eidan al-Ezzi and many others.

More than 25,000 ISIS militants killed

Another reason signaling the demise of the ISIS is the depleting size of its once all-powerful army, which is now at its lowest in two years. The group has been suffering heavy casualties with the group losing its ‘fighters’ at a steady pace. This has been a result of powerful nations stepping up their attacks on the terror group.

“This campaign at this stage is firing on all cylinders and as a result, ISIL is under more pressure than ever before. ISIL continues to lose key leaders,” the US President said.

The US and Iraqi government forces last month claimed to have killed more than 70 terrorists in a raid near Fallujah. Around 800 fighters were killed in April in dozens of US and allied forces' airstrikes. In the same month, 40 militants were killed in Russian airstrikes that targeted the group’s headquarters in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province.

In April this year, the Pentagon had claimed to kill more than 25,000 ISIS militants. According to US military, the group suffered devastating blows with the attacks which have left it “weak at the knees”.

"The killed (ISIS militants) includes Salman Abu Shabib, the senior military leader in Mosul ...who plotted external attacks, Shaker Wahib, ISIL’s military leader in Iraq’s Anbar Province, and Maher al-Bilawi, the top ISIL commander in Fallujah," the US President added.

India Tv - ISIS


According to Syrian Observatory For Human Rights (SOHR), US-led Coalition airstrikes have killed 4,885 people across Syria, of which 4450 dead were ISIS militants. The air strikes occurred in the period between 22 September 2014 and 23 May 2016.

The SOHR states that Russian airstrikes between September 30, 2015, and May 30, 2016, in Syria killed 6,340 people, of which 2,270 were ISIL militants, 1,971 militants from the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and other rebel forces.

Till April this year, Britain, which began air strikes in Iraq in September 2014 as part of a global force to eliminate ISIS, has made 640 airstrikes against ISIS targets in the two countries.

The assaults have surely impacted on the jihadists’ morale as half of the ISIS terrorists in Syria were killed in the past 20 months.

ISIS loses 45% territory in Iraq, 20% in Syria

According to new estimates by a US-led coalition combating the extremist group, the Islamic State has lost 45 per cent of the territory it once held in Iraq and 20 per cent of areas it controlled in Syria.

The territory seized by Iraqi forces, aided by coalition airstrikes and advisers, is up from 40 per cent announced earlier this year.

In Syria, the ISIS’s losses are up from the coalition's estimates of 10 to 15 per cent of areas it controlled earlier this year.

“ISIL continues to lose ground in Iraq. In the past two months, local forces in Iraq with coalition support have liberated the western town of Rutba and have also pushed up the Euphrates River Valley, liberating the strategic town of Hiit and breaking the ISIL siege of Haditha,” the US President said.

“ISIL continues to lose ground in Syria as well. Assisted by our special operations forces, the coalition of local forces is now pressuring the key town of (inaudible), which means the noose is tightening around ISIL in Raqqah as well,” the US President added.

ISIS had captured Palmyra in Syria in May last year. It demolished some of the best-known monuments in the UNESCO world heritage site. ISIS used Palmyra’s ancient amphitheatre as a venue for public executions, including the beheading of the city’s 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

The city was an important juncture on ISIS supply line connecting its territory in central and northern Syria to the Anbar province in Iraq, where the group also holds territory.

In March this year, Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra from ISIS. The Russian air force was key in taking back Palmyra. This victory helped security forces in further tightening the noose around ISIS terrorists.

India Tv - ISIS Map


The Syrian government said the capture of Palmyra was a major setback for the terror group, which has come under mounting pressure on several fronts in Iraq and Syria in recent months.

In recent weeks, US backed Iraqi forces pushed militants out of towns in western Iraq’s Euphrates River valley and retook the city of Ramadi. Iraqi forces have also begun operations around Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

In September last year, Russia helped the local forces to recapture major cities like Ramadi in neighboring Iraq. They also assisted in retaking the city of Tikrit last year and the Syrian town of al-Shadadi in February.

ISIS faces financial crisis

Security forces have also targeted tactical units, Sharia courts and oil fields held by ISIS.

The group is facing severe financial problems as it recently had announced that it will cut salaries of its militants by half. The group had said that it had to take this exceptional decision due to the pressure it is facing by the airstrikes carried by US-led coalition.

The coalition has succeeded in bombing some of the oil trucks, storage tanks, mobile refineries and other oil field equipment used by the group.

“As ISIL continues to lose territory, it also continues to lose the money that it is — that is its life blood. As a result of our strikes against its oil infrastructure and supply lines, we believe that we’ve cut ISIL’s revenue from oil by millions of dollars per month. In destroying the storage sites where they keep their cash, we’ve deprived ISIL of many millions more,” Obama said.

“...working with nations and financial institutions around the world, ISIL is now effectively cut off from the international financial system. Cutting off ISIL’s money may not be as dramatic as military strikes, but it is critically important and we’re seeing the results. ISIL’s cash reserves are down, it has had to cut salaries for its fighters, it’s resorting to more extortion of those trapped in its grip. And by ISIL’s own admission, some of its own leaders have been caught stealing cash and gold. Once again, ISIL’s true nature has been revealed. These are not religious warriors, they are thugs and they are thieves,” Obama added.

The group’s monthly revenue has fallen by 30 per cent in recent months, according to information and analysis firm IHS. In March, the group collected only $56 million (Rs 377 crore), a significant reduction from estimated monthly revenue of $80 million (Rs 538 crore) in mid-2105. The decline in revenue is now seriously constraining the ISIS' ability to fund its reign of terror.

ISIS has ceded 22 per cent of its territory to Kurdish, Syrian and Iraqi forces over the past 15 months. During that time, the population living under ISIS rule has fallen from 9 million ( 90 Lakh ) to 6 million (60 lakh). 

Tax revenue, which provides roughly half of the group's funding, has fallen by 23% since last summer, as a result, ISIS is desperately finding new ways to squeeze money out of the people still living in its territory.

India Tv - ISIS


The group imposes a 10 per cent income tax, 15 per cent business tax, 2 per cent sales tax and 5 per cent fee on cash withdrawals from banks. There's also a mafia-like protection insurance, called jizyah, that Christians are forced to pay.

ISIS is so strapped for cash it has also started giving people accused of violating Sharia law the option of paying a cash fine instead of suffering severe physical punishments.

Revenue from crude sales is down 26 per cent from last year. And daily production in the region has dropped from 33,000 barrels last summer to 21,000 barrels. Crude oil sales account for 42 per cent of ISIS' revenue, but experts said the group has not raised the price it charges smugglers at the wellhead.

Recently, PTI had reported that cash-strapped militant group had taken to selling chickens and eggs in the streets of Libya's Sirte at a "very cheap price" in an apparent sign of its deepening financial woes.

Lack of propaganda videos

The lack of propaganda videos by ISIS in recent time is another indication that it was losing its ground.

The group had in past circulated many videos threatening to launch attacks against the West. But from last few months, no such videos have surfaced.

India Tv - ISIS


Nevertheless, the group in recent past has turned to offensive mode, perceived as a sign of growing frustration.

"In short, our coalition continues to be on offense. ISIL is on defense and it has now been a full year since ISIL has been able to mount a major successful offensive operation on either Syria or Iraq," President Obama said.

The last clip was released in the first week of May urging urging Muslims to destroy their satellite TV sets to prevent hostile channels ‘destroying their beliefs and polluting their ethics’.

Looking Ahead

The ISIS may have lost considerable ground both in terms of territory and finances. Still, its barbarism remains intact and so does its ability to strike at crucial junctures. Moreover, its propaganda of radicalisation has managed to misguide several youngsters, with many resorting to attacks without any active support from the IS per say.

On the other hand, world powers uniting against terrorism -- and ISIS in particular -- signals a resolve to control and eliminate the influence of such radical groups. The dent in finances, soldiers, territory add up to a significant loss for the group. Moreover, Baghdadi's death, if true, could lead to a big loss in morale for the group. True, small but significant damage will continue at the hands of 'lone wolves' as they have come to be called, but the magnitude and influence of the leaders and their attacks will subsequently fade.

The real challenge though lies in targeting the ideology - something that the West has and will find difficult to comprehend and thus deal with.  

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