Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the former caliph of the Islamic State, appears to be dead for real time. Since his rapid rise to notoriety in 2014, he had been declared dead at least 15 times, only to appear again when nobody expected. But it would be wrong to think that the elimination of an important figure, even when he is the number one terrorist in the world, marks the end of radical Islamism. Similarly, the liquidation of Bin Laden in 2011 did not lead to the liquidation of Al Qaeda, simply to its evolution. Because radical Islamism or political Islamism is not centered around a charismatic leader who directs and controls everything, but represents an ideological force independent of individual figures.
The death of Al Baghdadi is certainly a blow to the morale. But for ISIS things hadn’t been going well for at least a couple of years and, after the early successes of 2014, the Caliphate was clearly in retreat, at least from a territorial point of view. But in spite of the territorial losses, radical Islamism, of which ISIS was only the last incarnation, remains a threat that is anything but eliminated forever.
Who are the main theoreticians of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, known historically as Salafism? Al Zarqawi, founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant, which then grew to become independent of the original Al Qaeda and formed the Islamic State, was not a great ideologist but rather a military fighter. It is said that Bin Laden was not particularly impressed by al-Zarqawi when this attended the training camp of the Saudi sheikh in Afghanistan. But Zarqawi, before being killed by US drone in 2006, was able to assert himself on the field and create a following. Zarqawi was the one single figure largely responsible for transforming the chaos that followed the American invasion of 2003 into a veritable civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
The ideological mentor of Al Zarqawi and father of the modern Salafist movement is generally considered Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. To him is attributed the paternity of the concept of al-wala wa-l-bara’ , literally “loyalty and renewal”. The novelty of this approach lay in the invitation not only to love all that is good for Allah, but to actively fight everything that Allah despises. This means that it is permissible to lead the jihad against all countries where the shariah, the Islamic law, is not enforced. Furthermore, every good Muslim must fight against the dangerous idea of democracy, which is naturally contrary to Islamic principles. Al-Maqdisi, whose creed is known as maqdisim, was among the first to denounce the Saudi regime, which he considered to be led by usurpers and traitors, allies of the number one unfaithful power, the United States. Between the mentor and al Zarqawi, however, it came to a rupture already in 2004: Al Maqdisi did not approve of the strategy of terror employed against Shiite Muslims, and condemned it as the most serious of sins, takfir. This led al-Maqdisi to distance itself also from the Islamic State. It is currently unknown where al-Maqdisi resides now.
Al-Zarqawi’s chaos strategy is probably a reference to Abu Bakr Naji (also known as Mohammad Hasan Khalil al-Hakim), author of one of the seminal works of radical Islam, in the English-speaking world known as “The Management of Savagery” . The central thesis of the work is precisely that of the necessary creation of a phase of high degree of indiscriminate destruction in the Middle East, so as to frighten the enemy and be able to take advantage subsequently of the reigning anarchy. A low-cost Islamic response to the “shock and awe” tactics adopted by the United States at the time of the invasion of Iraq. In a 2006 video Abu Bakr Naji appeared next to the Egyptian al-Zawahiri, then number two of al-Qaeda, now considered the leader of the Islamic terrorist organization par excellence. It is said that it was al-Zawahiri to legitimize suicide attacks as a acceptable means of jihad (suicide is expressly condemned by traditional Islam) and to abolish the distinction between combatant victims and civilian victims among the ranks of the enemy.
Another important reference in the ideological constellation of the current Salafist Islam is the figure of Abu Musab Al-Suri, author of the 1600-page book “The call to global Islamic resistance”. Al Suri is considered one of the inspirers of the 2004 Madrid and London terrorist attacks in 2005. He was arrested in 2005 by the Pakistani authorities and deported to Syria, where he was wanted. Just as the name of war says, Al Suri was a Syrian citizen, a native of Aleppo, but he had spent many years in Spain. Traces of him have been lost since the start of the war in Syria and it appears that he was released from Syrian prisons as revenge following the CIA’s intervention alongside the rebels in the Syrian conflict. The main idea of Al Suri, a point on which he disagreed with Bin Laden, who preferred a grand strategy, was the belief that jihad against the enemies of Islam should be conducted on a low and frequent individual scale, a kind of uberisation of terrorism, so as to destroy the morale of the enemy little by little and lure him into the trap of an endless battle.
There has been much talk, rightly, of the propaganda of the Islamic State in the era of social media and the professionalism with which the adepts of the cause of ISIS used different digital information channels. Following the withdrawal of US troops in Iraq in 2011 and the raging war in Syria, the Islamic State found the opportunity to conquer large tracts of territory and lay the territorial foundations for the resurrection of an Islamic caliphate where a country could be organised around the shariah. Now al-Baghdadi is dead, but for tens of thousands of fighters the ideological message of the Islamic State remains alive, ready to manifest itself at the next opportunity. The war in Syria has not yet ended, Assad has remained in his post (until now), contrary to all predictions, and the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites remain more profound than ever. In short, the ideological ground for a future reaffirmation of the caliphate seems more than fertile and the potential for a future conflict very high.
The idea of a caliphate or an Islamic state is as old as Islam. But the internal divisions within the Islamic faith that appeared almost immediately after Muhammad’s death, made the idea of a political unification of the entire Muslim community, the Ummah, difficult to implement. The Ottoman Empire, which managed to dominate vast portions of the Middle East and North Africa, formally inherited the institution of the caliphate, with the function of the caliph filled by the Sultan in Istanbul. This was not seen favorably by many religious authorities and remained the subject of discord: the Ottoman Empire did not represent the Arab community and the Arabic of the Koran was the language of Allah. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, was a multicultural state, where ethnic Turks represented a minority and there were relatively vast religious freedoms, and this did not exactly reflect a rigorous application of the ideal of an Islamic state. The caliph remained incarnate in the person of the sultan until the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and has been vacant since. It remains to be seen when the next caliph hopeful will emerge.