A mugshot photo of al-Baghdadi detained at Camp Bucca, Iraq, 2004
In June 2014 Abu Bakr-al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, and himself as caliph of the whole of Islam. The organization he headed, ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), was renamed Islamic State (IS). He announced that he intended to spread his caliphate across the Middle East and Europe, conquering both Rome and Spain. And indeed, for a year or so his territorial conquests were considerable. By February 2019 all had been lost. His worldwide caliphate had lasted less than five years.
At its optimum, IS held large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. The areas it controlled pressed up hard against Turkey’s southern border, and they stretched to within only a few kilometres of the borders of Iran and Jordan. At its apogee IS was effectively governing a state of more than 34,000 square miles and controlling millions of people. Its revenue came from oil produced in the areas it had over-run, bought at bargain prices by dealers in Turkey and elsewhere. Its income was augmented by smuggling, taxes, ransoms from kidnappings, selling stolen artifacts, extortion and controlling crops.
Islamic experts explain that in the extremist world-view the Ummah (or ‘community of believers’) is in a state of total war with three designated enemies: the West, the Jews, and Shia Muslim regimes together with their inhabitants. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to ‘suppress the true faith’ – beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape – but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law and democracy.
IS’s treatment of the people it had conquered was barbaric in the extreme. Hundreds of Yazidi men were butchered in a series of blood-thirsty killing sprees, and at one time IS was believed to be holding some 3,500 women and children from the Yazidi community as slaves.
IS and its followers also clearly revelled in carrying the war into the heart of the enemy, instigating acts of indiscriminate terror in Western cities and against Western tourists around the world. Adhering to a religious philosophy which glorifies death, its adherents still flock to commit suicide in acts designed to destroy as many innocent lives as possible.
The succession of terrorist outrages committed inside Western countries make some sort of sense only if based on the assumption that democratic societies are basically unstable, and that under sufficient pressure they will implode – an assumption replete with wishful thinking, and on a par with Hitler’s belief in 1940 that a sustained bombing campaign on London would result in a collapse of morale.
Individuals induced to undertake suicide terror attacks may glory in their own “martyrdom” and gain satisfaction from causing death, misery and mayhem, but they do little to advance the establishment of a world-wide caliphate. Although such attacks may generate fear in Western populations, they are more likely to stiffen their governments’ determination to boost their counter-terrorist operations and bear down heavily on those who plan and perpetrate terror.
At one time it seemed that to remove IS from their well-entrenched positions in places like Mosul and Raqqa would be well-nigh impossible. At its optimum, the IS caliphate occupied an area bigger than Jordan or Austria, and governed around 10 million people. Today, thanks to the sustained efforts of the US-led coalition, with an especial mention of the battlefield victories of the Kurdish Peshmega fighting force, the IS caliphate on the ground has disappeared. Its barbarous reign is effectively over.
Several positive benefits follow. IS can no longer terrorize those living under its control. Its power to influence impressionable young Muslims from around the world to join its ranks is severely compromised. As for the hundreds of volunteer fighters now languishing in camps, to say nothing of the young women who flocked to join them as jihadi brides, the scales may have fallen from the eyes of at least some. Yet extremist Muslim philosophy retains a strong appeal to impressionable young minds, and it would be a mistake for the Western democracies to lower their guard simply because IS’s grip on the territory it once controlled has been wrested from it.
What has happened to al-Baghdadi? Some media have reported him dead. In contrast, on 19 February 2019 the Arabic-language service of Russia Today (RT) television quoted an Iraqi intelligence source as saying: "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and is in Syria," a report confirmed by local media, which have also reported that al-Baghdadi, dressed in civilian clothes, is on the run in Syria, continually changing locations.
That sort of fate was avoided by Adolf Hitler back in 1945. On 30 April. when it was clear beyond any doubt that his Thousand-Year Reich was dead and gone, he took a gun and shot himself. He was 56.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 February 2019:
Published in the MPC Journal, 24 February 2019: