Originally Published by Council on Foreign Relations – October 29, 2019
The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, founder and leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, is a crushing blow to the already enfeebled organization. The big question now is whether his demise will prove a boon to al-Qaeda, reinvigorating what was once the world’s most feared terrorist group.
Reasons for Reunion
The rump of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria might ally itself again with al-Qaeda, despite their public, hostile divorce in 2014. Should the Islamic State’s branches in Africa and South Asia follow suit, the West would face a renewed and perhaps even greater global terrorist threat. Several factors support this possibility: the two organizations share similar ideologies, their estrangement was more a product of a clash of their leaders’ egos than of differences in core beliefs, and the Islamic State’s once compelling attraction to foreign fighters and homegrown recruits is now likely to atrophy, if not reverse.
The Call to Global Jihad
Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda adhere to the principles first articulated by Palestinian Islamic scholar Abdullah Azzam three decades ago—that it is an obligation for Muslims to come to the defense of their brethren wherever they are threatened. To Azzam, as well as to Osama bin Laden, current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Baghdadi, an aggressive, predatory war is being waged against Islam by its infidel enemies. These include Western democratic liberal states; corrupt, repressive Western-backed local apostates in countries such as Jordan; and Shias and other Muslim minorities. In this clash of civilizations, a global jihad is needed to defeat the enemy.
The biggest obstacle to a reconciliation between the groups was the vicious rivalry between Baghdadi and Zawahiri, but that has evaporated with Baghdadi’s death. Additionally, because Baghdadi claimed to have been a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, any Islamic State commander will have difficulty attempting to succeed him. This void will likely throw the Islamic State’s leadership into disarray and provide al-Qaeda with an ideal opportunity to reunite with its beleaguered offspring, possibly using diplomacy or resorting to violence to do so.
A merger would result in a terrorist force of chilling dimensions and influence. The groups’ combined power could prove compelling enough to persuade competing Islamist insurgent groups in the region, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s former Syrian franchise, to join an umbrella movement led by Zawahiri. Indeed, relations between HTS, al-Qaeda, and other militant factions, including Hurras al-Din (HAD)—a newer al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria—have warmed in recent months. HAD commander Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri has publicly urged a resumption of international terrorist attacks against the West, including the use of chemical weapons.
Seeking a Next Generation of Jihadis
The decapitation of any terrorist group inevitably hurts its ability to recruit. Baghdadi tried to protect his legacy by martyring himself with a suicide vest, but his death is still a serious blow to the Islamic State’s brand and harms its ability to project strength and resilience. This may benefit al-Qaeda, which has long styled itself as a more strategic and mature alternative to the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg caliphate. With Baghdadi gone, al-Qaeda’s image could become more attractive to aspiring jihadis.
Perhaps more than anything else, al-Qaeda is keen to acquire the Islamic State’s excellent social media skills and its ability to strike in places as far as Western Europe and South Asia. With Baghdadi’s death, it may be poised to do so.