The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a source that Western media outlets regularly rely upon, claims it has â€œconfirmedâ€ the death of ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Whether the report ends up being true or not, it begs the question of what names are being suggested as his likeliest replacement.
The organization indicates it has at least three sources inside ISIS confirming Baghdadiâ€™s death, including a â€œfirst-line commanderâ€ and at least two second-ranking commanders in the Deir Ezzor area of Syria. The sources said that Baghdadi was hiding in Deir Ezzor as recently as three months ago.
An Iraqi news outlet then reported that ISIS confirmed the death at some kind of event in Tal Afar and ended the ban on discussing it, which was supposedly punishable by 50 lashes.
The Iraqi outletâ€™s source, however, was a â€œlocal source in Ninevehâ€ and no further information was provided. It was then reported that ISIS was plagued by in-fighting in Tal Afar following the confirmation of his death.
It is not explained why ISIS wouldnâ€™t formally announce the death in its outlets and no public communications from ISIS members confirming Baghdadiâ€™s death have been reported on anywhere. Another Syrian outlet known for having sources in Raqqa said its sources denied that Baghdadi died.
It is very unlikely that Baghdadi will escape justice for years and years as Osama Bin Laden did. He is not protected by any intelligence services, does not have a country to safely flee to as Bin Laden had with Pakistan, and ISIS is significantly more unpopular in the Muslim world than Bin Laden.
A suitable successor to Baghdadi must have experience in jihad, strong religious credentials to qualify as a caliph, the respect of ISISâ€™ ranks and leadership qualities like charisma and an aura of power, mystery and divine blessing. Most importantly, the replacement must be seen as successfulâ€”and soon.
The most logical replacement was the â€œGrand Muftiâ€ of the ISIS caliphate, Turki al-Binali, but he was killed in a U.S. airstrike on May 31.
Another likely successor, intelligence/security chief Ayad al-Jumaili, was killed on March 31 near the Syrian border in the area of Al-Qaim (a likely hiding spot for Baghdadi).
The top contender is Iyad al-Obaidi, ISISâ€™ war minister. He was in Saddam Husseinâ€™s security service; a brutal organization that kept Hussein in power.
Apparently, serving in the Iraqi military that Islamists label as apostates is not a disqualifier. The prominent role of personnel from Saddamâ€™s regime in ISIS and its Al-Qaeda predecessor should prompt a revisiting of just how â€œsecularâ€ and â€œmoderateâ€ the Iraqi Baathist regime supposedly was.
However, Obaidi lacks religious credentials and ISISâ€™ losing streak is happening on his watch as the war minister. ISISâ€™ eight-member shura council that must approve a successor (if it can even meet or communicate) will be hard pressed to justify Obaidiâ€™s appointment to skeptics. A point in his favor, on the other hand, is his status as a member of the Obaidi tribe.
One report in April says the shura council already chose a deputy commander in Nineveh named Abu Hafsa al-Mousali (or al-Mosuli) as Baghdadiâ€™s replacement. The report claims that the selection sparked in-fighting.
Al-Mousali is described by one Iraqi outlet as â€œone of the most barbaric and bloodiestâ€ leaders in ISIS. He is said to have held several positions related to governance and military operations.
Neither of the two names commonly suggested as successors to Baghdadi measure up. And even if they did, it would still be hard to keep the group together and morale high.
ISISâ€™ rapid growth came after the declaring of a caliphate and a blitz across Iraq that enthused supporters, attracted jihadists looking for a new kid on the block to supplant Al-Qaeda and inspired new supporters as the groupâ€™s march appeared as an Allah-ordained fulfillment of prophecy.
All that has changed and ISIS is now in deep trouble.
Commentators have every incentive to minimize the impact of Baghdadiâ€™s potential death. It is safer to predict further bloodshed — a prediction that will inevitably be fulfilled — than to point out that Baghdadiâ€™s shoes will be very difficult, if not impossible, for a successor to fill. Plus, pessimism gets higher ratings and clicks.
Regardless, ISIS will not disappear if Baghdadi dies. Acts of terrorism in the name of ISIS are likely to continue because itâ€™s still the hottest brand for jihadists to attach themselves to.
But killing Baghdadi would still be of momentous consequence for ISIS, as the group is so centered around having a caliph leading an actual governing caliphate.
If Baghdadiâ€™s successor does have the confidence of the group after his name is announced, it still wonâ€™t solve the groupâ€™s key problem: It is losing. And losing badly.
If the new â€œcaliphâ€ doesnâ€™t have dramatic success in regaining territory and/or orchestrating and inspiring terrorist attacks in the West, then ISIS and its new leader will always seem to be a shadow of itself.
For many jihadists, it will appear to have lost the approval of Allah and may even be suffering judgement.
We should not only be looking at a successor to Baghdadi but how to defeat a successor to ISIS. As memories of ISISâ€™ peak fade, another group will arise to eclipse it, just as ISIS eclipsed Al-Qaeda.