US President Donald Trump announced earlier this week the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the hands of US special forces in Syria.
What does al-Baghdadi’s death mean for ISIS, and more specifically, for ISIS’ involvement in Libya and its civil war?
ISIS itself is a far cry from where it stood just five years ago, as it jumped to the world’s attention and took control of vast swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria, and as Islamist affiliates began swearing allegiance to the new caliph, including in Libya. By 2015, al-Baghdadi’s new Islamic Empire had an estimated 30,000 fighters, with foreign Jihadists streaming in daily, significant arms and a budget of around $1 billion a year from oil fields, taxes, ransom, extortion and more. Yet, by 2016, ISIS’ hold on the territory began to weaken, as the US and Russia, and the various regional actors they backed, worked to beat back the group and dislodge it from power. By 2019, it had lost most of its territory in the Levant and was also significantly weakened in Libya and other places.
In Syria and Iraq, however, while losing its territory and sovereignty, ISIS did not simply disappear. Rather, it is believed to have gone "underground” with close to 20,000 fighters. It continues to conduct sporadic suicide attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and arson, continues terrorising villages and extorting tax payments. Rather than acting like a de-facto state, ISIS transformed itself, and continues its propaganda campaigns to recruit resentful Muslims to join the jihadist cause- either in person or in spirit. Numerous terrorist attacks in Europe and the US in recent years can be chalked up to such incitement, beyond the attacks ISIS itself launches.
It is not clear to what extent al-Baghdadi was running the affairs of the group in recent years or to what extent he was a symbolic figure of inspiration. Even if he was more of the latter, his death could affect ISIS’ morale as well as its unity. This has to do, in large part, to al-Baghdadi assuming the mantle of the caliph, a hybrid political-religious leader who commanded the Islamic empires of old. Did al-Baghdadi, or ISIS leaders, already appoint a successor? Will they be able to appoint someone who similarly commands the allegiance of Jihadists world-wide, a sdid al-Baghdadi? The extent to which they do this is in some ways the extent to which ISIS can continue to remain an influential force beyond its immediate area.
What about Libya?
Libya has long been a hub for the global Jihadist movement, especially once Qaddafi was ousted and much of the state turned to lawlessness. The power vacuum invited Jihadists to set up shop, especially carving out pockets in Benghazi and Derna, and co-opting some the dominant militias throughout 2014. As ISIS aimed to expand its territory globally, with Jihadist groups swearing allegiance to al-Baghdadi, it was bolstered by a flow of fighters graduating from the Syrian arena and returning to Libya. By late 2014, Derna firmly fell into ISIS’ control.
If the ties between the ISIS core in Iraq and Syria, and the Libyan affiliate were initially loose, they would strengthen in time due to this constant flow of fighters between the two areas. The Libyan franchise would become a key part of ISIS’ growing empire. ISIS managed to capitalise on the disaffection of some of the Islamist militias fighting in the civil war, the same groups who rose up to fight Qaddafi initially. Then ISIS aligned groups succeeded in taking over Sirte in 2015 and claimed their sovereignty over the area. Libyan ISIS, due to its initial successes, soon became a key attraction point for ISIS recruiting, and even a refuge for Levant based ISIS leaders.
However, similar to the situation in Iraq and Syria, ISIS in Libya soon managed to alienate much of the population due to its brutality and drew the ire of both sides in the conflict, and especially of US forces involved in the conflict. By the end of 2016, US backed militias managed to drive out ISIS from Sirte, although the fighters simply regrouped in the south and continue waging guerilla warfare. While diminished significantly, ISIS remains a nuisance throughout the country, and continues to conduct attacks, including on oil infrastructure.
Al-Baghdadi’s death will likely have little influence on the presence and motivation of Jihadist fighters in Libya, even those who had sworn allegiance to him, to continue their efforts to regroup and remain an influential presence. However, to the extent that his death influences ISIS central in Syria and Iraq, it could have an effect on the connection between those fighters in Libya and their counterparts further east. If a suitable successor is found who can maintain the ISIS networks, including ideological leadership and the flow of fighters and money, then this might have little effect beyond a temporary moral blow to the loyalists. On the other hand, if ISIS has a hard time recovering from the loss of their uniting figure, this could put a strain on ISIS Libya’s connections to the main group.
In either case, It is doubtful Jihadists will disappear from the myriad militias seeking power and influence in Libya so long as the larger issues there remain prevalent. And, as we have seen in numerous cases, defeating ISIS militarily is one challenge, largely accomplished at this time. But defeating the group ideologically is a far more complex political, social and economic challenge that is far from having been achieved.