Georgia Tech Expert: Al-Baghdadi Killing Unlikely to Weaken ISIS Terror Group

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By Michael Pearson

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is unlikely to have a significant impact on the Islamic State group he led, according to Jenna Jordan, a Georgia Institute of Technology expert on efforts to decapitate terrorist organizations.

“This might even have less impact than Osama bin Laden’s death had on al-Qaida,”
 said Jordan, an associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and author of the just-published book, Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations.

The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, developed a strong bureaucracy during the time it controlled significant parts of Iraq and Syria, Jordan said.

“ISIS doesn’t control territory in the same way it once did, but the mechanisms that were in place still provide the group with the strength to withstand these sorts of attacks,” she said.

Indeed, the Islamic State group remains a potent force, with regional affiliates around the world, an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 fighters loyal to it, and deep pockets from revenue it generated during its time acting as a state, Jordan said.

Al-Baghdadi also appears to have had little interaction with the group during much of his time in hiding, Jordan said, reducing his personal influence over operations.

Instead of ending the threat from the Islamic State group, Jordan said al-Baghdadi’s death is likely to embolden the group to stage attacks in retaliation for al-Baghdadi’s death, or to demonstrate that it remains a force to be reckoned with despite it.

“They’re likely to continue carrying out attacks, and continue efforts to regain territory. They certainly still pose a threat,” she said.

Jordan has closely studied the effectiveness of efforts to capture or kill terrorist leaders for years, finding that such efforts tend to be least effective when applied to large, religious, separatist, and Islamist groups. Organizations with strong bureaucracies, widely diffused ideologies, and popular support are difficult to weaken through targeting efforts.

For instance, she studied Israeli efforts to capture or kill Hamas leaders, finding that the group’s strong bureaucracy and popular support among Palestinians gave it significant immunity against decapitation.

Similar characteristics helped Peru’s Shining Path separatist movement continue its operations after the arrest of its leader Abimael Guzmán in 1992, Jordan found. By 1999, declining membership and a weakened bureaucracy spelled the group’s demise with the arrest of then leader Oscar Ramirez Durán.

That does not appear to be the fate for the Islamic State group, at least not in the short term, Jordan said, meaning the United States and its allies likely have much more work left to eliminate the worldwide threat posed by the organization.

The Nunn School is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.


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