After al-Baghdadi

ISIS and the Middle East Winners & Losers in the Wake of the Terror Leader's Death

By Timothy Furnish Published on October 30, 2019

Ninety-seven years ago this week, the last Ottoman ruler was sent packing. That Empire, on the losing side in World War I, was being demolished abroad by Western powers. It was also being dismantled at home, by secularists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Mehmet VI, the sultan-caliph who looked more like a librarian than a leader, was exiled to Malta then spent the rest of his life on the Italian Riviera.

The Turks reduced the caliphate to a spiritual post and put Mehmet’s cousin, Abdűlmecid II, in it. But two years later that position, too, was abolished. Abdűlmecid moved to Paris, where he died in 1944. So the great Islamic caliphate, which had originated in 632 at Muhammad’s death, ended with a whimper.

That was the grand and legitimate caliphate, however. Its epigone, established in 2014, ended with a bang last weekend. Ibrahim al-Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest as US Special Forces cornered him in a compound in north-western Syria. President Trump said he “died like a dog,” pursued by Green Berets and their heroic canine.

The Birth of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Syria), or the Levant, was declared in summer 2014. Al-Baghdadi, born Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarri led the group. Perhaps this obscure PhD in Islamic jurisprudence was, back then, merely an “austere religious scholar.” But ISIS members made him their caliph. And he ruled a large quasi-state that straddled Iraqi and Syrian territory. (Although its exact size was a matter of debate.)

ISIS’ strict (but not “radical”) imposition of Sunni shari`ah was well known. Beheadings. Sex slavery. Killing of apostates, Shi`is and homosexuals. (For more on the group’s strategy and Islamic bona fides, see my book Sects, Lies, and the Caliphate, pp. 1-31 in particular.)

ISIS was rich, well-armed, and had tens of thousands of jihadist fighters in its ranks. Young Muslims, both male and female, heeded the call, proclaimed in the group’s Dabiq magazine, to come there for Allah, adventure and avarice. This ruthless caliphate posed a real threat to the Middle East. Furthermore, its territorial reign not only empowered ISIS to outstrip rival al-Qa`idah (AQ), but to launch terrorist attacks in Europe and the US.

The Eschatological End

The Islamic State (IS), as it eventually came to be known, was also eschatological. That is, its leadership clearly believed in the traditions about al-Mahdi, the leader whom Allah would send in the Last Days to take over the Earth for Islam. (For background on Mahdism and info on Islamic State’s beliefs, see my Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps, pp. 1-67.) 

Even worse, IS clearly tried to “hotwire the apocalypse”—to take horrible, violent action as a means of persuading Allah to unleash the Mahdi. (Iran’s leaders are often accused, wrongly, of the same belief.)  As I told Fox News’ War Stories: Fighting ISIS in 2016, “ISIS sees the United States as a Christian power. And that they will defeat the Crusaders, us, and that will then bring about the eschatological end and the Islamic conquest of the world.”

Such was Caliph al-Baghdadi’s grand strategic plan. Well, as an earlier Western leader in a different venue once said, “it will not be our end—but his.” And thus it proved to be. President Obama had promised to “degrade and destroy” IS. Like most of what he said, that proved half right. It took the US military (with a little help from its friends there, both state and non-state) under President Trump to destroy the “caliphate” as a territorial state. And it is 45 who gets credit for putting the nail in the caliphal coffin, by sending al-Baghdadi to meet the houris.

Now What?

Now what? What are the ramifications for the region, and the larger civilizational conflict between Islam and the West, now that Islam’s latest caliphate has been liquidated? There are downsides, as well as positive repercussions.

Syria and Iraq both benefit from the death of IS Islamic irredentism, but the former most of all. Contra conventional wisdom in Washington, Bashar al-Assad was never the “Alawi Hitler” he was made out to be. (In fact, as The Stream’s John Zmirak pointed out more than once, the Assad regime protected Christians, and Islamic minorities, from the wrath of Sunni fundamentalists.) And Syria-as-failed-state would upset the entire region. So having the Damascus government in charge, again, of most of that nation-state’s territory is a positive development. Ditto for Iraq, although the central government’s position was never threatened to the extent Syria’s was.

The status of the Syrian Kurds has also improved as IS’ has plunged. This despite President Trump’s cutting a deal with Turkish President Recep Erdoğan that many (but not all) have described as a “betrayal” of those Kurds. However, that group is now working with the Syrian  government again. This is a far more feasible idea than going back to the Versailles drawing board.  Unscrewing the Kurds would entail redrawing Middle Eastern borders. And since President Trump has no desire to play Woodrow Wilson, the Kurds will have to accept half a loaf is better than none.

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Yes, killing off this Sunni caliphate and caliph benefits Twelver Shi`i Iran. But while the Islamic Republic is a state sponsor of terrorism, it’s not the horror show that IS was. (I’ve been to Iran and returned. I could never have said that about IS.) As I tell my world history students, the Conquistadors were brutes — but the Aztecs were monsters. I’ll take Iran over IS any day, and twice on Friday.

One can argue that the Turks were better off with IS and al-Baghdadi around. Why? Because Turkey has been fighting Kurdish separatist groups for decades and IS gave the latter fits. (Some have even argued Ankara used IS as a proxy in this conflict.) So perhaps Trump’s alleged deal with Erdoğan did have more art in it than originally thought.

The major beneficiary of al-Baghdadi’s self-bombing might be AQ. Bin Ladin’s organization was already strengthening, even before the US campaign to wipe out its rival ramped up. Now, AQ is once again the unquestioned leader at striking the far enemy (the US, mainly). Whether it wants to, or can, supplant IS as the main regional threat to governments remains to be seen.

And What of IS Itself?

Whither IS itself? It had followed the historical pattern of similar Muslim groups. A period of 1) preaching revivalist propaganda was followed by 2) the establishment of a militant theocracy in opposition. This entity then 3) seized power and established a territorial state.  With the American-led destruction of the caliphate’s rule, IS was moving backwards to stage two. And now that al-Baghdadi is really, most sincerely, dead, IS must revert to stage 1.

However, that initial level is still fraught with danger for the rest of the world. IS has branches in dozens of countries, And its members have never abandoned their apocalyptic fervor — which are shared by huge numbers of Muslims. Such shared convictions insure IS will persist as a terrorist group—and maybe even try its hand at a caliphate again, somewhere, at some point.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth; a history professor; and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s “War Stories: Fighting ISIS).

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