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What al-Baghdadi’s death means for Islamic State leadership

A U.S. military raid this weekend achieved the long-standing goal of killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. But with the group’s continued presence around the globe, who will fill the leadership vacuum left by his death? Jennifer Cafarella, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more perspective on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more perspective on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS, I'm joined here in the studio by Jennifer Carfarella. She's a research director at the Institute for the Study of War. So if we're to believe that it is him because, he's been said to be dead before. But I think this one seemed somewhat more real. How significant is it?

  • Jennifer Cafarella:

    The elimination of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a very big deal. We've been on the hunt for this individual since 2014 when we intervened to halt ISIS' rampage across the Middle East. And the death of Baghdadi could actually have a disruptive effect not only on the ability of ISIS to reconstitute inside of Iraq and Syria, but also potentially disrupting ISIS' global expansion, which has been a key priority for Baghdadi, and his emphasis this year, actually, up until his death.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And he was sort of tactically a little different in that he didn't necessarily want everybody to show up here any more, or show up there, he just said go ahead and do your attacks wherever you are.

  • Jennifer Cafarella:

    Yeah. ISIS has prioritized inspiring attacks essentially wherever there are Muslim populations that could respond to his call. And the problem that the U.S. has faced, even before the elimination of Baghdadi, is that ISIS already diversified its footprint for how it is generating not only the inspired attacks, but also the high level coordinated ISIS attacks. So there are actually four global provinces of the Islamic State that have thus far participated in attack plots in the West.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And in that case, considering that ISIS is diversifying geographically, how much does the leadership structure, how much of it is centrally commanded and controlled? I mean, I've heard that he had lots of fail-safes and high security measures. Does he have a succession plan that is automatically triggered? 'If you guys hear that I'm dead. You take over.'

  • Jennifer Cafarella:

    I do expect that Baghdadi has a succession plan. We don't yet know. We'll see in coming days how fast a successor is named. But he was running a very coordinated and disciplined military organization, again, not just in Iraq and Syria, but globally as well. So I think one of the key questions is how dependent was the linkage between the global operations and the fight in Iraq and Syria? How connected was that to Baghdadi, the person, or how much of that was run by, say, his deputies or his overall military commander? I don't think we yet know. That'll be something to watch for as the aftermath of Baghdadi's death unfolds.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what about the fact that this happened in northwestern Syria, an area that really al-Qaida is supposed to be dominant in, and these are factions that don't get along. Was he trying to create a bridge, perhaps?

  • Jennifer Cafarella:

    Yeah. This is the big surprise in the death of Baghdadi, the location where U.S. forces eliminated him. ISIS had been conducting a campaign for over a year now to expand its presence in Idlib to try to undermine the al-Qaida governing project in Idlib, which was a challenge, a potential competitor to the Islamic State. So for that reason, actually, is why it was surprising that Baghdadi was there amidst offensive operations against al-Qaida. You wouldn't expect him to be co-located with that kind of a fight. But his location in the al-Qaida dominated area could indicate a couple of things. First, it's possible al-Qaida doesn't have that strong of a hold on that terrain, as we expected, or ultimately and most dangerously, he may have been involved in renewed negotiations with one or more of the al-Qaida factions operating in Idlib, which share his desire to conduct attacks against the West.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And finally, what about this, the taunting, or at least the language the president used, does that resonate with his supporters or are they just gonna consider him a martyr outright regardless of the circumstances of the death?

  • Jennifer Cafarella:

    I think that the language that we all use to describe the Islamic State has most of an effect on those who fight ISIS, right? This is a huge morale victory for all of the civilians and military forces across this region that have risked their lives to confront or escape this organization. I do think it's appropriate for the U.S. to take a victory lap on this. This was a significant accomplishment, although I do not expect that it actually will break the will of ISIS' fighting forced to continue to fight.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jennifer Cafarella, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Jennifer Cafarella:

    You bet. Thank you.

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