Daesh’s leader was killed in a US-led operation in October 2019. The group announced a new leader shortly after, and his succession appears uncontested. While it is possible that the group could either fragment or merge with other jihadist organisations, we anticipate that Daesh will survive the transition and continue with its current efforts to re-establish itself in its Middle Eastern heartland. It is therefore unlikely to successfully orchestrate sophisticated attacks against Great Britain in the near future. However, we should not underestimate the possibility of further independent and low complexity attacks by supporters.
By Eden Stewart, Senior Analyst
What does Baghdadi’s death mean for Daesh?
“While a symbolic blow, Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to have any significant operational impact on the group in the near term.”
Daesh’s leader and self-proclaimed caliphate, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was killed in a US-led operation in October 2019. Shortly after, Daesh released an audio statement acknowledging Baghdadi’s death and proclaiming Abu Ibrahim Al Qureshi as its new leader and ‘caliph’. Most major Daesh ‘provinces’ (wilayat) quickly pledged allegiance (bay’ah) to Qureshi, and there was little evidence that his succession was contested.
While a symbolic blow, Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to have any significant operational impact on the group in the near term. It is unclear to what extent Baghdadi, as a figurehead, was involved in day-to-day direction of the group’s activities, but it is likely that he delegated most decision making to subordinates. Operating as a collection of dispersed networks, the group has considerable resilience against eventualities like the loss of key personnel.
Given this, we anticipate that the group will persevere with its existing strategy of re-establishing itself in its Sunni heartlands along the Iraqi-Syria border through clandestine insurgent activity, while relying on supporters further afield to conduct headline-grabbing attacks abroad. Indeed, in announcing a new leader, Daesh called on its supporters to heed Baghdadi’s previous call for attacks against the United States and its allies.
How does this impact the security of the UK?
Several Western security officials warned of possible attacks by Daesh supporters to avenge Baghdadi’s death. However, these have thus far failed to materialise. Opportunistic attacks or the acceleration of plots already in the planning may be portrayed by their perpetrators and Daesh’s propaganda machine as planned revenge attacks, but a spike in violence as a direct result of Baghdadi’s death is unlikely.
While police and intelligence services have adopted a heightened state of alert following Baghdadi’s death, precedent suggests the targeted assassination of Islamist extremist leaders does not correspond with a discernible rise in the frequency of attacks. The death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 did not result in a wave of revenge attacks, and despite concerns, the more recent assassination of his son Hamza Bin Laden (confirmed in September) also seemed to generate no backlash.
“Despite the absence of retaliatory attacks, Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to signal the demise of Daesh as a threat to the United Kingdom or its allies.”
Eight days after the operation against Baghdadi was publicised, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) reduced the UK’s national threat level to SUBSTANTIAL as part of wider review of the threat to the UK. While this decision does not affect response levels (which advise on protective security measures), it is unlikely that JTAC would reduce the threat level in the face of credible evidence of new plots being instigated after Baghdadi’s death.
Despite the absence of retaliatory attacks, Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to signal the demise of Daesh as a threat to the United Kingdom or its allies. While decapitation strikes can cripple some terrorist groups, Islamist , and there is little to suggest that Daesh will crumble without Baghdadi.
The actual identity of the Daesh’s new leader remains unclear. Qureshi was proclaimed ‘caliph’, making him both Baghdadi’s spiritual and temporal successor, while his moniker suggests ancestry from the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad. This indicates that Daesh’s high command has not abandoned the vision for the group articulated by Baghdadi in 2014 and is intent on maintaining the group’s coherence and promoting continuity.
Is it likely to affect the frequency and severity of attacks in the United Kingdom?
The threat to the United Kingdom is unlikely to materially change, with Daesh’s core focusing on the Middle East while providing tacit support to followers abroad who aspire to mount attacks independently. The suppressive effect of the UK’s counter terrorism capabilities mean that the vast majority of plots do not benefit from the tradecraft and resources of Daesh and are caught at the planning stage. Those most likely to succeed will involve limited planning, the use of low-complexity methodologies and the targeting of relatively unprotected locations.
The seemingly uncontested succession and swift pledges of allegiance from overseas affiliates is expected to strengthen Qureshi’s authority and give the impression of a “still united” movement. Whether this unity will endure remains unknown. Disagreements over strategic decisions like where to focus the group’s resources could yet result in factionalism, and ultimately, fragmentating of the group.
It is not clear such a scenario would diminish the threat posed by those who subscribe to Baghdadi’s ideology. Splits within Daesh could enable more audacious elements intent on committing complex attacks against the West to come to the fore. Alternatively, the death of Baghdadi could precipitate a rapprochement between Daesh and its now estranged progenitor Al Qaeda. This might lead to the emergence of a strengthened ‘super group’, better able to finance and plan attacks against Europe. Equally, Al Qaeda may attempt to use Baghdadi’s death to reclaim its former position as the preeminent Islamist terrorist organisation. Again, such a move could lead to greater volatility within the global jihadist milieu, or the emergence of a more formidable and unified movement.
For the time being, Daesh will probably maintain its organisational coherence and independence, but it will continue to be constrained by international action against it, both in its homeland and overseas. Consequently, the likelihood of complex Daesh-orchestrated attacks in the UK remains low, albeit not impossible. Still, unsophisticated attack methodologies popularised by the group will continue to be used by lone, self-radicalised individuals, some of whom will claim to act in Daesh’s name.
Find out more in our latest Threat and Mitigation Report here.