Islamic State’s Caliphate Leadership Crisis

The Islamic State might be on the verge of collapsing. Thanks to key airstrikes by the Canadian-backed, U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group’s days may be numbered.

Allied airstrikes have taken out the Islamic State’s top-tier leadership. Reports from the region suggest that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, was seriously injured in an airstrike back in March. Some have even speculated that Baghdadi was paralyzed from the attack and remains incapacitated, while others insist Baghdadi is alive and well.

IS is not like other terrorist groups in the region; Baghdadi is key to the Islamic State’s core existence. His leadership is central to the IS caliphate and to the carefully considered beliefs that drive the terrorist group.

Baghdadi became the leader of the Islamic State back in 2010, when nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to the obscure terrorist group. But last summer, Baghdadi came out of hiding and delivered an explosive Ramadan sermon in Mosul to call for the first caliphate, or Muslim empire, in generations.

The last caliphate was under the Ottoman Empire back in the 16th century; many devout supporters, however, do not consider the Ottoman a legitimate caliphate, since it didn’t impose full Sharia law, including amputations and slavery. It was also missing another key component: the leader was not a direct descendent from the tribe of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.

Baghdadi is a descendent of that tribe.

According to devout IS followers, we are witnessing the first caliphate in 1,000 years. That is why tens of thousands of jihadis around the world have streamed into Iraq and Syria to take up arms with the brutish militants.

But do Baghdadi’s injuries suggest the end of the Islamic State? Without Baghdadi at the helm, many are speculating who will take over leadership and what it will mean for IS.

A Radio Iran report last week declared that Baghdadi was in fact killed by the March bombing, and that IS members had already sworn allegiance to his successor, Abu Alaa al-Afri.

While this is not necessarily a credible source, just days later the U.S. placed Afri on its most wanted list and put a $7 million bounty on his head – the highest after Baghdadi’s $10 million.

Earlier this week, however, the Iraqi defence ministry released a report saying the Islamic State’s number two man was killed on Wednesday in an air strike. Although the U.S. Central Command denies the coalition was behind the attack, the Iraqi government posted footage of the strike that allegedly killed Afri.

This is bad news for IS.

Even though Afri could not have carried the same weight as Baghdadi as leader, since he is not Arab nor is he from the same tribe as Mohammed, Afri was a stabilizing figure. Perhaps in reaction to Afri’s death, the Islamic State released an audio recording, supposedly of Baghdadi himself, renewing his call for all Muslims to pick up arms and join the Islamic State.

The voice has not yet been verified and it is not clear when the recording was made. But it does suggest that the Islamic State is trying to avert fracturing caused by a leadership crisis. There are surely other would-be leaders in the IS fray, but as with any leadership transition, the process of selecting a new leader can cause infighting and disagreements, and could splinter the group into smaller, less threatening factions

The coalition should take advantage of this weakness and work to deliver a final blow against these terrorist thugs. Now 60 countries strong, allied forces should continue their bombardment of airstrikes to take out key members of the Islamic State, while training local officials to contain and weaken IS militants on the ground.

We have them up against a rope, now it’s time to deliver the finishing blow.

It is also important that Canada prioritize its remaining goals of this mission and what is left to accomplish. Boosting the military capacity of the minority Kurds and ensuring the safety of the Yazidi and Coptic Christian populations should top the list.

But we don’t want to overstay our welcome and be dragged into the odious task of securing and rebuilding Iraq once the Islamic State is destroyed. The Harper government has been wise to commit military involvement in short-term intervals. This allows a quick exit and avoids entanglement in another war in the region.

Our commitment was to help destroy the Islamic State. Thankfully, we seem to be accomplishing that goal.

This column first appeared in the Toronto Sun on Saturday, May 16, 2015