The Buzz

Explained: Why ISIS Can Survive without Baghdadi

Martin Chulov at the Guardian reported last month that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, had been “seriously wounded” in a coalition airstrike in al-Baaj, Iraq on March 18. Although al-Baghdadi’s injuries were life threatening at first, the report asserts he has since recovered. The report notes, however, that al-Baghdadi has not resumed day-to-day control of the organization, yet. Despite the Pentagon disputing this occurrence, the possible implications of targeting al-Baghdadi raise interesting concerns pertaining to the effectiveness of so-called “decapitation strikes” vis-à-vis the survivability of the Islamic State and its leadership, and consequently, the manner in which this should affect the coalition’s targeting practices.

One must note that al-Baghdadi was not deliberately targeted by the coalition air strike. In fact, this was an attack meant to target “local ISIS leaders” and, as Chulov specifies, “[coalition] officials did not know at the time that Baghdadi was in one of the cars.” This should raise concerns about the coalition’s intelligence gathering and targeting practices. The attack was designed to target the aforementioned ISIS leaders—and in that respect, it may have even succeeded—but the fact that coalition forces were entirely unaware of who else was present in the three-car convoy reemphasizes the fact that the United States does not know who it is targeting. This raises questions regarding the diligence with which these airstrikes are being carried out, especially with regard to collateral damage.

The efficiency with which these attacks are being carried out should also raise concerns. This incident would constitute the second time, after a dubious close call in November, that Baghdadi has been able to escape coalition airstrikes with his life. The inefficiency of these airstrikes, however, is unsurprising. Among different decapitation methods, research has shown that bombings are the least successful option, while raid and sweep operations are the most effective.  While some have been quick to emphasize the apparent success of the coalition’s airstrikes in targeting the Islamic State’s leadership, the long-term efficacy of this campaign is limited at best, and enormously counterproductive at worst.

The arguments in favor of conducting decapitation strikes are based on assertions that exaggerate the importance of charismatic leaders. Successfully targeting the leader, they argue, can create intraorganizational turmoil and potentially lead to organizational collapse. While some have called for a focused targeting of al-Baghdadi since “the supply of caliphs is not infinite,” such an approach should definitely not be the primary targeting focus of the coalition’s air strikes. Targeting the leadership through decapitation strikes is not an effective counterterrorism strategy, especially when dealing with a robust organization such as the Islamic State. Jenna Jordan, an Assistant Professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, posits a theory of organizational resilience wherein a terrorist group’s ability to withstand decapitation and degradation increases if it enjoys considerable public support and is highly bureaucratized. Although the extent of the Islamic State’s local support cannot be determined, it does enjoy sufficient support globally to be able to regenerate. The Islamic State is an organization with a strong hierarchical bureaucratic apparatus wherein, unlike his predecessors who kept power centralized, al-Baghdadi has built a power-sharing structure that effectively manages all aspects of the Islamic State’s operations. Decentralized and hierarchical organizations, like the Islamic State, are significantly harder to destabilize. Thus, invariably increasing the Islamic State’s ability to survive a change in leadership.