On June 16, 2017, the Russian military announced that it might have killed the reclusive chieftain of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in an airstrike in Raqqa. It is working to provide further confirmation. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the claim, including reports that ISIS moved its remaining leadership from Raqqa to Deir Ezzor months ago. And this is far from the first time that Baghdadi has been pronounced dead. Yet even if the rumors prove false, it is still worth considering what his death would mean.
Born in Samarra, Iraq, Baghdadi spent most of 2004 in Camp Bucca, the U.S. military prison in southern Iraq. That turned out to be an opportunity to network with criminals, ex-Baathists, and jihadists, including Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, and Abu Kassem. Upon their release, Baghdadi and those three formed the core of what evolved into ISIS after Baghdadi helped engineer the defection of al Qaeda in Iraq from the broader al Qaeda group. He has been the leader of ISIS ever since.
Baghdadi is thought to have obtained a doctorate in Quranic studies from Saddam University in Baghdad. His education allowed him to claim better religious credentials than other jihadist leaders, including al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. That was one of several factors—along with a familial lineage traced back to the Prophet—that cleared Baghdadi’s way to declare himself Caliph, ruler of all Muslims, in an historic speech at the Grand Mosque in Mosul in June 2014.
Although news of the new Caliph’s declaration was largely met with indifference in Western security and intelligence circles, it invited an unprecedented wave of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria from around the globe. Tens of thousands of Muslims flocked there to join ISIS as it sought to construct a modern-day caliphate while vanquishing all enemies in sight.
How big a blow would the death of Baghdadi be to the survival of ISIS? The academic scholarship on
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