Subscribe to the Real Truth for FREE news and analysis.Subscribe Now
BEIRUT (AP) – One of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s last audio messages was an appeal for his followers to do everything in their power to free Islamic State detainees and the women being held in jails and camps in northeastern Syria.
With news of the extremist group’s leader’s death, Kurdish security forces worried about the possibility of attacks or rioting have been tightening security at these facilities, which hold more than 80,000 members and supporters of the militant group, including women and children.
While news of al-Baghdadi’s death had not been announced in the camps on Monday, many of his supporters living in detention facilities and camps in Syria have telephones and they most likely heard the news.
“If our men are in prison, we are the soldiers of the Caliphate,” some of the women held in al-Hol, the largest holding camp in northern Syria, chanted Monday, according to a security official with the Kurdish-led internal security agency.
The camp is home to 70,000, most of them women and children including about 11,000 foreigners. More than 10,000 prisoners, including 2,000 foreigners, are in detention facilities in northeastern Syria.
The nighttime raid by U.S. special operations forces was a blow to the militant group that became a global organization under his leadership. His demise only few months after losing the group’s territorial hold ushers in a new phase for ISIS amid uncertainty over the new leadership as thousands of its supporters and members languish in prisons.
The decentralized group, with members estimated anywhere between 14,000 and 30,000, has already pivoted toward insurgency after losing its territory in the last couple of years. But its branches abroad and the number of those who pledged their allegiance have increased.
Who the next leader is will likely determine whether the group will dig in to consolidate its hold on Syria and Iraq—or focus on global outreach.
The group has not officially announced al-Baghdadi’s death or named a new leader. In public, followers and supporters have not eulogized the 48-year old. But social media posts by groups affiliated with ISIS note that the death of a leader does not spell the end of an ideology.
“Jihad has not stopped with the death of a leader or Emir,” said a post on Shmoukh al-Islam page, or glory of Islam. It added: “What if the leader of the Believers is martyred, we will stay the course and to whoever follows we renew the pledge.”
Experts and security officials say one of al-Baghdadi’s close aides will likely succeed him. But the shadowy head of ISIS was security-obsessed and known for turning on members of his close circle. One possible favorite is Abdullah Qardash, an Iraqi Turkman from Talafar and a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army. The two met in a U.S. prison in 2003 and Qardash became al-Baghdadi’s top security henchman.
The IS Shura council, the shadowy group’s leadership of 10 or so people, is supposed to choose the next leader if al-Baghdadi had designated a successor. But it’s not clear how many of them are still alive.
Another of al-Baghdadi’s close aides, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed in a joint U.S. operation with Kurdish forces in Jarablus on Sunday, hours after al-Baghdadi blew himself up during a U.S. raid. Little is known about al-Muhajir, who was appointed spokesman in 2016 and is believed to be a foreigner given his nom de guerre, the migrant.
The new leader’s priority, experts say, will likely be prison breaks. The group’s previous incarnation organized some of the most spectacular prison escapes in Iraq in a year-long operation called “Breaking the Walls.” It was responsible for at least eight different prison breaks, freeing nearly 500 people between 2012 and 2013.
“It has almost always been a priority [for the group], the question is whether it’ll be able to pull it off,” said Hassan Hassan, an ISIS expert and an analyst at the Center for Global Policy.
Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert with the DC-based Institute for the Study of War, said it is not yet clear whether ISIS would pick an Iraqi leader.
“ISIS has become a global organization and if it hopes to remain so, it will need a leader that can convincingly fill the role of an international commander and cleric. ISIS’s Iraqi heritage could actually become a liability for the organization,” she said.
Mr. Hassan said the organization will probably pick an Iraqi as the majority of its members are from Iraq and given the group’s focus on religious and operational credentials.
He added: Whoever “he is, he’ll have to start from scratch. To build his legacy and prove himself.”