Baghdadi and Bin Laden … What’s the Difference?
Al-Etihad, UAE, November 7
When Osama bin Laden announced in 1988 the creation of what he called the “Global Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders,” known as al-Qaida, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had just turned 17. When bin Laden claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks, Baghdadi was an anonymous preacher at a Baghdad mosque. This generational difference between Baghdadi, born in 1971, and bin Laden, born in 1957, influenced the path the two men took. The circumstances surrounding the establishment of Islamic State in 2013 were considerably different from those in which al-Qaida was born. Although it is tempting to compare the assassination of Baghdadi just a few weeks ago to that of Bin Laden in May 2011, it is important to remember that the two events and their impact on the two organizations are inherently different. Bin Laden was able to play a pivotal role in his organization even while hiding, based on two factors: First, his historical record in the war in Afghanistan and also the fame he gained during that war, which enabled him to lead global terrorism. Second, his ability to communicate and attract attention, as demonstrated in his countless speeches. In contrast, Baghdadi had neither of these factors. There is no remarkable historical record and no markers indicating that he was a strong or influential figure. From his supporters’ point of view, Baghdadi’s main achievement was in transforming a terrorist organization that operated only in Iraq into a larger movement operating in other Middle Eastern countries as well. By these measures, the impact of his death on ISIS may appear less important than that bin Laden’s assassination had for al-Qaida. But this conclusion may be hasty because it overlooks an important variable: Both men spent their last few years in hiding. Therefore, it was extremely difficult for them to play an effective leadership role in their respective organizations. Bin Laden’s role was considerably diminished in his final years and he became essentially irrelevant from an operational standpoint. Meanwhile, Baghdadi was killed after his organization was defeated militarily and expelled from areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq. But Baghdadi’s weakness was even more dramatic because he lacked the moral authority that bin Laden had. Yet this difference, however important, is not enough to conclude that the repercussions of Baghdadi’s killing for ISIS will be less monumental than the effects of bin Laden’s death on al-Qaida. If al-Qaida became weaker after bin Laden’s death, it was linked to the emergence of ISIS, which attracted some of its cadres and many of its supporters. Therefore, the fate of ISIS after the killing of Baghdadi may depend on two central questions: The first is the fate of Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, who was coronated as ISIS’s new leader. Will the movement consolidate behind Qurashi’s back? The second relates to al-Qaida: Will it is able to exploit the confusion and disorder within the ranks of ISIS to regain the forefront of global terrorism? Or, alternatively, will a third organization, separate from these two, emerge in the region and vie for leadership? History tells us that this is certainly possible. – Waheed Abd al-Majeed (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)