Briefing Note: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Role of the Caliph

At a Glance

Briefing Note: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Role of the Caliph

23 Apr 2015

Amid reports that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been wounded in an airstrike, thoughts turn to the role he plays as 'caliph' of ISIS and the implications in the event of his replacement.

There are reports from Iraqi officials that Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham ( ISIS) and self-proclaimed caliph of all Muslims, is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of ISIS. He is reportedly recovering from critical wounds he sustained in an airstrike on 18 March 2015.

A Pentagon spokesperson denied the reports. He did acknowledge that an airstrike was carried out on a three-car convoy in the al-Baaja district of Nineveh on 18 March, which is close to the Syrian border, but stated that there was no intelligence indicating Baghdadi was in the convoy or had been wounded.

Baghdadi's death still remains a possibility during the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, and although it is unlikely to destroy the organisation, it would have serious implications for the group's future and claims to religious legitimacy through the role of 'caliph' – the prophet Muhammad's successor and God's deputy on earth.

Baghdadi's death could threaten ISIS' claim to religious legitimacy.

Baghdadi has remained a shadowy and enigmatic figure, despite being one of the most notorious jihadi leaders in the world. This has increased his own personal persona, as well as making it more difficult to track and kill him. Biographical information on him comes predominantly from jihadi sources with an interest in elevating his credentials, but some facts are generally accepted. He is believed to be in his mid-forties, most probably born in 1971 into a religious family in Iraq's Samara region, and educated in Islamic studies (including Islamic culture, sharia, and Fiqh) at the University in Baghdad.

Baghdadi's trajectory into jihad is disputed, some claim he was already an Islamist insurgent during Saddam Hussein's regime, others that he was radicalised during a prison sentence following the US intervention. He did however join al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to ISIS and is likely to have been an emir (commander) in Rawa, an Iraqi border town with Syria, where he oversaw a sharia court and gained a reputation for brutality. By 2010, Baghdadi had moved up the ranks enough to take over the leadership of the group.

Over the next four years, Baghdadi restructured the group into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) alongside its top leadership, which included a number of military and intelligence commanders from former-Saddam Hussein's regime. Together they shaped the insurgent group into a much more professional and efficient fighting machine. Recent papers obtained by media sources also indicate the possibility that the top leadership had planned the group's seizure of large parts of Syria and Iraq for years. The declaration in June 2014 that ISIS was forming a caliphate in areas it had captured in Iraq and Syria, and that Baghdadi had been chosen as caliph launched him into the centre of the international jihadi stage.

A Muslim man historically must fulfill numerous criteria to be eligible for the position of caliph, including extensive education in Islamic history and law, a deep knowledge (ie: memorisation) of the Quran, and a reputation for integrity, justice and bravery. He must be fit in mind and body, and he must be descended from the Qurayshi clan, which was the traditional ruler of Mecca in pre-Islamic times and the clan to which the prophet Muhammad belonged.

Baghdadi, who took on the name 'Caliph Ibrahim,' meets these requirements to at least some degree. He demanded the loyalty of all Muslims and claimed it was incumbent on them to travel to the 'caliphate' and join the jihad against unbelievers, a pronouncement that provoked widespread Muslim rejection.

A successor has likely been chosen in the event Baghdadi dies.

As caliph, Baghdadi's role is a military, political and religious one. He is supported by two deputies, one in Iraq (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a former Saddam Hussein-era army lieutenant colonel and officer in the special forces, whom the US claim to have killed in December 2014) the other in Syria (Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former Saddam Hussein-era army major general), by a shura council which guides his religious and political decisions, and various military commanders (many of whom served under Saddam Hussein). One of the strengths of ISIS, which in part accounts for its rapid expansion and ability to quickly subdue regions, and which has so far assisted in maintaining the group's cohesion is its clear command and control network.

This stable framework likely means that a successor, or clear line of succession has already been laid out in the eventuality of Baghdadi's death. Historically when a caliph died, the shura council would convene and decide amongst themselves who among qualified candidates was best suited to ascend to the leadership. Among traditional Islamic leaders today, including among others Oman and traditional Islamic African leaders such as the sultan of Sokoto and amir of Kano, this is the process taken. Another option would be if Baghdadi had selected his successor already and the shura council had in turn approved him, which is the process in Saudi Arabia. There is also provision within Islamic tradition for a legitimate coup, should the coup leader then rule according to sharia.

Given the group's glorification of violence and use of its battlefield successes as divine legitimacy for its purpose, Baghdadi's successor is likely to be a top military commander. To maintain its claim to religious Islamic legitimacy however, any successor would also need to fulfill the historic criteria for the caliph.

Should someone who does not meet the religious criteria take over, ISIS would lose its claim to represent the continuity of the caliphate tradition and open the way for religious counter narratives that tackle the group's claim to religious authority. In the event of Baghdadi's death, the organisation is unlikely to collapse, but his successor may degrade its legitimacy among those attracted to its ideology.

 

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