Baghdadi’s good-bad news: He’s dead, but his ghost will haunt us
The death of terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Oct. 26, as U.S. Special Forces rushed his Syrian compound, is a harbinger of both good news and bad.
Baghdadi, 48, perhaps was overconfident that he could never be caught, so the creator of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group failed to have an escape plan: He trapped himself inside a dead-end tunnel. Realizing his fate was sealed, he detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and the three children with him.
Triggering the vest ended a reign of terror that included the execution of thousands of victims in the most horrific ways.
While his death had been incorrectly reported more than once before during President Barack Obama’s tenure, this time his death is certain, according to DNA tests.
There should be little doubt as to why his death heralds good news. A short history of his rise to fame and impact upon the world order explains this.
Baghdadi was a prolific killer of men, women and children, both non-Muslim and, as most often was the case, fellow Muslims he deemed not extreme enough.
Wherever he and his murderous gang wandered, a trail of dead bodies followed. ISIS used the most extreme methods of execution, from beheadings to explosives, burning victims alive, drowning them in cages, even pulling them apart with vehicles. His modus operandi was not just to execute victims but to make them suffer in the most inhumane ways. He also sanctioned the rape of female prisoners, who were passed from fighter to fighter.
Baghdadi rose from obscurity, first becoming active with al-Qaeda after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Captured by U.S. forces in early 2004, he spent time in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison before being released late that year.
It would be a decade before the leader of ISIS — a group considered too extreme even by al-Qaeda’s standards — would publicly announce the establishment of a Muslim “caliphate” in 2014, one supposedly preordained to force the non-Muslim world to submit to Islam. Baghdadi conveniently declared that he would rule it as “Caliph Ibrahim, commander of the faithful” — a caliph for all Muslims.
Giving Baghdadi’s claim some credibility among his followers was the fact that his Sunni forefathers long claimed to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad. Thousands of men and women flocked to his call to fight and went on to capture large expanses of territory. ISIS established Mosul as its capital in Iraq, and Raqqa as its capital in Syria, until U.S. forces stripped it of its bite, its capitals and its land. Yet, it still has worldwide sleeper cells as well as small units able to conduct hit-and-run attacks in Syria and Iraq.
Despite leaving such a bloody trail, Baghdadi was not easy to find, even with a $25 million bounty placed on his head; doing so ultimately was tied to the success of U.S. forces in shrinking the playing field where he could hide. Much like Osama bin Laden, Baghdadi had to give up various perks of leadership, and moved about in unassuming vehicles so as not to draw attention. Downsizing the significant geographic area of Iraq and Syria that the ISIS caliphate claimed at one point, U.S. intelligence eventually determined that Baghdadi was holed up in one of the last bastions still under the terrorist group’s control.
To understand why Baghdadi’s death also is a harbinger of bad news necessitates knowing Islamic history.
The word “caliph” in Arabic means “successor.” The founder of Islam was the Prophet Muhammad. Those who followed Muhammad as rulers of the world’s Muslim community of the faithful, known as the “ummah,” and of territory directly under Muslim control, known as a “caliphate,” were deemed “successors of the prophet,” or “caliphs.”
This chain of recognized caliphs, selected by the existing elders, ran from the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 AD through 1258 AD, when the last sanctioned caliph was killed by the Mongols. But, since 1258, the decision as to whether one qualified for “caliphhood” became a free-for-all. The call would be made by a ruler who believed he wielded the power to so declare himself, failing to recognize the existence of any elders whose approval he needed. In making such a self-declaration, a ruler looks to give his authority the authenticity of Muhammad’s blessing, obtaining the support of followers to re-establish a caliphate — this time on a global level.
Thus, the bad news coming with Baghdadi’s death is that which has plagued the Islamic world since 1258 and will continue to disrupt world stability — i.e., the rise, and the eventual fall, of self-declared caliphs.
Baghdadi is but a historical blip on Islam’s 21st century timeline. While earlier centuries saw a few self-declared caliphs, we are seeing more on today’s horizon. These include the likes of the terrorist group Boko Haram, whose leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared a Nigerian caliphate in 2014. Within our own NATO alliance, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly longs for the days of the Ottoman Empire — a caliphate declared in 1880 by the then-sultan, only to be abolished in 1924 in the aftermath of Turkey joining the wrong side in World War I.
Thus, Islam’s history teaches us that Baghdadi’s 2014 self-declared caliphate is nothing new; such self-declarations historically have come and gone. A caliphate is not a fluke of Islamic history, it is a reality of it. As such, it will continue to plague Western hopes of maintaining any kind of stable world order in the future.
Baghdadi may have departed our world, but his ghost will continue to haunt us.
James G. Zumwalt is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He heads a security consulting firm named after his father, Adm. Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.