Islamic State group chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Photo: AFP

In late October, the notorious leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a nighttime raid by US special forces. While Baghdadi’s death was definitely one more blow to the terror group, it was far from fatal to Islamic State (ISIS). And that is not because another “emir of war,” Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was named as his replacement shortly after that military operation.

José Monteiro Limão, a consultant at Eupportunity who holds a master’s degree from the Universidade Católica Portuguesa, explained what could make ISIS stronger.

“The security environment in the Middle East hasn’t changed substantially after the fall of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate,” he told this writer. “It is still vulnerable and easily exposed to risks. As has been recognized, ‘ISIS is down, but not out.’

“For that matter, one must remember two important notes: ISIS has been ‘defeated’ more than once and, again, it has not disappeared. In order to prevent its return, it is important to ensure the stability and unity of the forces countering it. However, this can easily be undermined by external shocks and, in that case, ISIS is still a threat. No doubts about that.

“I would list four sources of instability that could make ISIS stronger again,” Limão continued. “The first and most blatant is the Turkish intervention in Syria’s northeast against the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by a mainly Kurdish force, considered to be the most effective fighters against ISIS.

“The second one is the huge instability in Iraq, which can weaken even more its institutions, possibly leading to a power vacuum, taken by ISIS. Related to this is the increasing tension between the USA and Iran, which could eventually spread to Iraq and aggravate its tensions.

“Finally, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which was seen as the final defeat of ISIS, can create a feeling of revenge among his followers, leading them to avenge his death,” the expert said.

How ISIS ‘breathes’

The United States did a fantastic job of eliminating the founding father of ISIS. Some media outlets described it as the decapitation of Islamic State, and rightly so. But will this kill the most advanced terror group of our time?

I have always been impressed by a striking similarity between the biology of living organisms and social and political phenomena. And there is plenty of science behind it. Suffice to say that the founders of sociology, Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim, advocated the theory of organic analogy.

Some insect species can survive decapitation and live for weeks. This is the case with those creatures whose brain does not control their breathing. Depending on the species, they breathe either through tiny holes located in different segments of their bodies or through the skin. That is why they do not need the head for this purpose.

The problem with ISIS is that it can safely survive without a leader, which is because the organization can “breathe” independently from the “head.” This is due to a number of significant peculiarities of Islamic State.

First, the way ISIS is financed implies diversification and focus on local resources. Money flows in from all around the world, and you might have come across news about individuals being arrested for donating funds to support ISIS, as was the case with three domestic workers in Singapore or two men in Germany who sent hundreds of thousands of euros to militants. Moreover, the group is very adaptive and even after losing the caliphate, it manages to raise funds through extortion, smuggling, doing business and investing in commercial enterprises. In other words, its wealth does not depend on a handful of rich donors.

Second, Islamic State is highly bureaucratized, which makes it less vulnerable. Baghdadi created an organization with a strong, yet decentralized, hierarchical apparatus. This means that the group is hard to undermine with one blow, increasing its chances of survival. Besides, such an organization is not sensitive to a change in leadership. In these circumstances, a leader is not that significant. Rules, procedures, division of responsibilities – all this has turned into an effective substitute for even the most charismatic leader. As American political scientist Jenna Jordan put it in a paper titled “Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark,” “highly bureaucratic terrorist organizations are more likely to experience smooth leadership transitions.”

Third, Islamic State is more like a network of terrorist groups based in different regions worldwide than a centralized organization. The degree of affiliation varies, which actually makes it easier for ISIS to spread its influence. The new Islamic State leader Qurashi has already been endorsed by an Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, as well as by ISIS branches in Egypt, Bangladesh, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. That said, with more than 4,000 fighters, IS-Khorasan is considered one of the most resilient and ambitious branches. According to Russell Travers, acting director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, it has tried to inspire attacks outside of Afghanistan and is determined to carry out attacks itself.

And finally, Islamic State propaganda targets a wide audience, using effective discourse strategies and taking advantage of social-media capabilities. The problem is that a well-rooted ideology cannot be killed with a weapon, nor does it die with the leader. Rather, ideology is a powerful, self-sufficient tool converting sympathizers into full-fledged fighters all over the world.

That is why if we want to squeeze the life out of this medieval beast, we need to put more effort into destroying the very basis of its existence. Most important, these should be concerted efforts of the international community.

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.

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