On June 16, the Russian military reported it believes it killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal leader of ISIS. If so, it would mark a severe blow, albeit temporarily, for the terrorist group. The possible kill occurred during an air strike on May 28 in Raqqa, Syria – the de facto capital of ISIS – while a leadership meeting was in progress.
The air strike lasted 10 minutes. It is also believed to have claimed the lives of 30 field commanders and approximately 300 fighters.
Apparently, the Russians, who maintain a pretty good intelligence network in Syria, aided by President Bashar Assad and their Iranian friends, learned the meeting was taking place to discuss an ISIS retreat from Raqqa. The city had recently fallen into the crosshairs of advancing U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab ground and U.S.-led Western and Arab air forces.
While the Russian report failed definitively to claim the ISIS equivalent of al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden had been terminated, the fact it comes almost three weeks after the actual attack hints Moscow feels somewhat confident al-Baghdadi is dead.
Unless post-attack photographs taken of the slain leader are those of a frighteningly similar doppelganger, it would appear al-Baghdadi, thankfully, is no longer among the living.
This was not to be al-Baghdadi’s self-declared fate. He claimed he would lead ISIS to its ultimate goal of a regional – and ultimately global – caliphate. But, in the wake of his possible death, the traditional proclamation heard by subjects in various countries when a king dies reminds us the same is true for ISIS: “The king is dead. Long live the king.”
The proclamation acknowledges the death of a previous leader while simultaneously announcing followers salute a new one who will ultimately replace him.
Islam has long clamored for the establishment of a territory – a caliphate – not demarcated by geography but by ideology. The two major sects of Islam – Shiite and Sunni – both seek to establish and then control it. As ISIS aggressively pursues this objective on behalf of Sunnis, Iran does so on behalf of Shiites.
As both sects acknowledge, the caliph must be a descendant of Prophet Muhammad and lead all Muslims, so it was inevitable a flagrant confrontation between two sects seeking the same objective would occur. This played out with the June 7 attack in Iran, against its parliament and Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini’s tomb, for which ISIS took credit.
While the ISIS attack in Iran took place after al-Baghdadi’s alleged death, it does not necessarily mean a new leader is yet calling the shots. Al-Baghdadi may well have approved of the operation far in advance of his death.
Upon becoming the leader of a pre-ISIS al-Qaida group in Iraq in 2010, al-Baghdadi maintained a somewhat low profile. Only two photographs existed of him then. His first written statement was not released until bin Laden’s death in 2011; his first audiotape in 2012 – promising future victories for his followers.
Al-Baghdadi’s predicted victories quickly mounted, giving credence to his claim he was descended from Muhammad. Followers failed to pick up on the fact al-Baghdadi’s name betrayed a contrary origin. However, as this mandatory prerequisite for becoming caliph went unchallenged, it ultimately led to his claiming the title of Caliph Ibrahim ibn Awwad.
The name selected was of the Rashidun caliphate that succeeded Muhammad in the seventh century and is most revered. (Interestingly, avowing he was a “humble” servant, al-Baghdadi hypocritically announced his promotion to caliph while wearing an $8,000 Rolex watch.)
Al-Baghdadi proclaimed he sought to restore the honor long overdue to Muslims. He brutally embarked upon a campaign to annihilate all non-believers – the vast majority of whom were fellow Muslims. But, from his viewpoint, all Shiites and any Sunnis not accepting his leadership were infidels subject to torture and the most brutal means of execution. And all this was justified in the name of jihad.
If the Russians were successful in killing the man responsible for murdering thousands and triggering the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945, we can take pleasure in knowing he is now facing his day of judgment.
However, we would be foolish to believe that the ISIS mindset has permanently been relegated to history’s dustbin. For Islam’s history tells us faux caliphs have come and gone, promising a caliphate that never materialized, yet causing the loss of millions of lives during a 1,400-year reign. The mentality Islam always promoted, whether via caliphs or avowed scholars, was that it is a religion superior to all others and, as such, non-Muslims must convert or die.
That one religion has historically left so many dead in its wake should give non-Muslims pause to consider whether it is really peaceful.
Apparently, any Muslim leader believing he has the following to do so seeks to claim that he is the real McCoy – i.e., the real caliph. As al-Baghdadi was making his claim in the Middle East, another Muslim leader, Abubakar Shekau, was making his in Nigeria. While ISIS conducted campaigns of death and destruction, so too did Shekau’s terrorist group, Boko Haram. Indications too are Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan also seeks a caliphate – a restoration of the last Sunni one Muslim’s embraced as the Ottoman Empire.
We must accept the fact self-proclaimed caliphs may come and go, but Islam’s campaigns of death in the name of a caliphate will always remain.
After learning his obituary had appeared in the newspaper, American humorist Mark Twain famously responded, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” We can only hope reports about al-Baghdadi’s death have not been. Sadly, however, even with his death, the world has not seen the last of the death merchants of his ilk. The painful reality is that Islam nurtures a mindset of global domination that will keep the West fighting an endless “Whack-a-Caliph” campaign.
Meanwhile, the peaceful religion known as Islam continues adding to its body count.