The Lasting Impact of the Islamic State


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

31 Oct 2019 – Out of chaos come strange leaders.  Most often they are re-absorbed into the chaos.  Sometimes, they rise above the chaos and impose a momentary order–the classic example being Napoleon arising from the disorder and chaos of the French Revolution.  Out of the chaos of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria arose the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh in its Arabic initials).  The figurehead of ISIS was Abou Bakr Al-Baghdadi, a good example of strange and unlikely leadership.  Although his death has been reported a number of times before, this time, the announcement by President Trump and General Mark Milley, head of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, is likely to be correct and has been confirmed  by Al-Fargar, the ISIS news agency on 31 October.   His body had DNA samples taken, and then “disposed of appropriately.”  The chaos continues in both Iraq and Syria, but it is worth asking what might be the lasting impact of the Islamic State.

Al-Baghdadi was an unlikely leader, coming from a poor family, educated in Islamic theology but not really a theologian, something of an ideologue but looked down upon by the fundamentalist ideologues of political Islam.  He had enough theological training to have his biographer write that his clan, the Badri, was descended from the tribe of the prophet Mohammed, a necessity to justify his claim to be the caliph of the Muslim world, of which the Islamic State was the purest example.

As the Islamic State took increasing territory, he was able to draw upon the talents of Iraqi military men who had been in the intelligence units under Saddam Hussein and who were used to administration.  In its 31 October announcement it was stated that the new leader of ISIS was Abdullah Qurdash, taking the name of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. He had been jailed with al-Baghdadi by the U.S. forces in 2003-2004 when the two men became close.  However, ISIS was administered largely through fear and threats of violence.

The disappearance of Al-Baghdadi, probably by a blast of explosives that he always had on him, will change little in the direction of ISIS.  From the start, he was largely unseen, a mythic figure, very occasionally speaking on radio but never seen.  Who provided operational leadership is largely unknown.  In fact, there may have been no overall operational leadership.  Thus, ISIS will continue as a multitude of organizations related to the specific geographic area of action, not very different from what it was when it started operations first in Iraq and then Syria.

I believe that there are two lasting impacts of the Islamic State. One is to bind together in a common fate of chaos Iraq and Syria.  The second is to add to an ideological framework that is spreading to different parts of the world.

One of the first symbolic gestures of ISIS was to destroy the sign posts marking the frontier between Iraq and Syria – a symbolic return to the period of the Ottoman Empire before the division of the area after World War I between England and France.  The two States, which will not be united officially, are bound together in misery.  The current flight of Kurds from northeast Syria to the Kurdish zone of Iraq is a dramatic symbol of the bonds.

The second lasting, or at least long-range, impact of ISIS is ideological.  Groups in a wide range of countries – West Africa, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe – have taken on the name of ISIS to justify their actions.  There is probably little, if any, organizational link, but there are ideological links.

The ideological impact of ISIS which led a good number of people from Western Europe, Russia, and Central Asia to join them, needs to be countered by a strong, positive counter-ideology.  The ISIS effort to destroy the Yazidis religious-based group needs to be met by a strong defense of religious liberty and action at the first signs of a promotion of genocide.  The wide-spread use of sexual violence by ISIS needs to be met with renewed efforts to prevent rape as a weapon of war.  The narrow religious positions of ISIS must be met by a spirit of the unity of humanity across the divides of religion, nationality and gender.  The death of a person, even if in a leadership position, does not kill an ideology.  ISIS’ long-range impact can only be met by strong compassion for all and a positive, inclusive intellectual framework.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Nov 2019.

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