ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi makes an appearance at a mosque in Mosul, in 2014. Photo: Reuters

Iran appears to be 100% certain that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of the Islamic State (ISIS) is dead. Its IRIB news agency has distributed a photo of the terror guru, lying dead — a lifeless corpse – in al-Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital along the Euphrates River. Sceptics assert, however, that the man in the photograph is not in fact Abu Bakr.

At the weekend, Ali Shirazi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said: “The death of this terrorist al-Baghdadi is certain.” As good as that may sound, it is probably also untrue. Over the past three years, at least twelve similar reports have claimed his death and all of them have proven to be false.

On June 11, Abu Bakr’s certain death was reported on state-run Syrian Television. Five days later, the Russian Ministry of Defense made a similar announcement, saying that it had taken down the ISIS chief, along with 30 of his top commanders, in a single raid on al-Raqqa. According to a state-run Iraqi news agency, one ISIS member “broke into tears” when mentioning Abu Bakr’s name at a Friday sermon on June 30: yet more proof that the A-class terrorist was actually dead.

More reliable security sources in Baghdad have confirmed to Asia Times, however, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive, and hiding in the countryside of al-Raqqa. “You will see him soon on videotape, addressing what remains of his followers from a secret hideout, similar to how Osama Bin Laden appeared in the caves of Afghanistan after 9-11,” is the prediction of Lahur Talabani, commander of intelligence for the Kurdistan Regional Government. “Abu Bakr still has a long way to go. His role is not over yet, but we will catch him and kill him. When we do, you will see it on television, just like you watched the hanging of Saddam Hussein. In the end, he will either be killed or captured. He will not be able to remain underground forever.”

According to the same Iraqi source, Abu Bakr left Mosul for Syria on 11 March 2017, in order to lead his troops in their battle against US-backed Kurdish warriors in al-Raqqa. With Mosul down and al-Raqqa now on the verge of collapse, he has very few destinations to choose from. He could either move back into Albukamal in Syria, which is very risky, or into Hawijah or al-Qaim in Iraq. Gone are the days when ISIS controlled territory larger than the size of Finland and Denmark, and with a population of six million people. Once bestriding the 600-km Syrian-Iraqi border, the area under its control has shrunk from 90,800 square kilometers in January 2015 to 36,200 today.

Images from Iranian television

But does Abu Bakr’s death, fake or otherwise, really mean anything? The man founded a terror school that has surpassed his own renown.

Al-Qaeda survived the 1989 killing of its founder Abdullah Azzam, after all, and then the 2011 elimination of Osama Bin Laden. Its branch in Iraq outlived Abu Musaab al-Zarkawi, who was taken down by the Americans in 2006, and the number of civilians killed by his organization rose from 1,546 in January 2006, when he was still alive, to 3,017 in the seven months that came after his demise. The same applies to ISIS itself: it has survived the 2015 killing of Jihadi John, and the 2016 elimination of two of Abu Bakr’s top aides, Abu Omar al-Shishani and his Syrian spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.

The same will happen with post-Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ISIS. The man has been able to run his “state” with remarkable efficiency for three years, creating branches in Egypt, Libya, Gaza and Nigeria, not only because of his terror tactics, hefty coffers, and personal charisma. There was something about Abu Bakr that made people follow him, despite his sheer brutality. It was his job title: “Al-Khalifa.”

“His role is not over yet, but we will catch him and kill him. When we do, you will see it on television, just like you watched the hanging of Saddam Hussein. In the end, he will either be killed or captured. He will not be able to remain underground forever”

In Arabic, that means “successor to the Prophet Mohammad” — a post that is explicitly mentioned in the Holy Quran and the compiled conversations of the Prophet. Over the indoctrinated masses, it casts a magic spell. A sane caliph, one who doesn’t chop off heads, would immediately win over the minds and hearts of millions.

Abu Bakr saw and projected himself as a legitimate continuation of the four successors of Mohammad, and even named himself after the first “Abu Bakr al-Siddiq.” The rules around becoming a caliph are fairly straightforward, and many are in fact eligible for the job. A caliph need only be an able-bodied male, extremely well-versed in Islam; he must be wise and humble, and he must rule “with the consent of the nation,” leading worshipers in prayer and battle alike, and abide by everything mentioned in the Holy Quran. In the Sunni Muslim world, a caliph must be descended from the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, which Abu Bakr claims to be, while in the Shiite world, he ought to claim direct lineage to the Prophet’s nuclear family, which is also often trumpeted by ISIS media on Abu Bakr’s behalf.

The point is that anybody can repeat the same trick that Abu Bakr pulled off in 2014 — self-proclaiming himself “caliph” of the Muslim world. The fact that he was able to pay impressive salaries from stolen oil money in both Syria and Iraq helped, of course. But if this Abu Bakr is dead, another will emerge, not too far from now, so long as the ideology of ISIS is not eradicated.    

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