The legacy of the “caliph”. Opportunities and vulnerabilities in the post al-Baghdadi Islamic State – by D. Plebani

Continuity is essential in every organization, including terrorist groups. This principle seems to be crucial for Islamic State (IS), bound since its beginning to the idea of a “caliph” according to its interpretation of the “methodology of prophethood”[1]. Given that both al-Baghdadi and IS’ spokesperson al-Muhajir are supposedly dead, several questions arise: how the transition will be managed? Who will be the new “caliph” and what challenges will he face? What are the overall consequences for the group? To gain a broader perspective it is imperative to analyse not just the “person” al-Baghdadi but most of all its position as “caliph”, as well as the fallouts of its demise over the group after its recent evolutions.

The “caliph” al-Baghdadi: “emperor” or “shogun”?

The actual authority of the “caliph” over pragmatic decisions is debated. Forced to move continuously in several places, probably with limited contacts with its officers, it would be not out of place to wonder if al-Baghdadi have not become more a symbol than a commander. On the other hand, he played a role in all major IS’ initiatives between 2018 and 2019. In a video message published on April 2019 he is showed while briefing its officials on the various wilayat (provinces) of the “caliphate”. A strong message, although maybe more based on propaganda than fact, especially in light of the recent episodes of growing internal opposition to its rule[2]. Probably al-Baghdadi was able to exercise a more active role as commander during the early years of the “caliphate” but later had to resort to a less direct approach due to security reasons.

To compensate for the lack of a command and control chain all through the top, IS resorted to publishing broader guidelines: this way strategies like the “war of attrition” and “campaigns” such as the one to “avenge the Sham” emerged. IS’ communication played a pivotal role in the matter, collecting under an umbrella of coherent narratives hundreds of attacks which otherwise would be just single initiatives. Such approach allowed and still allows IS’ leadership to channel its operatives’ efforts towards specific targets and methods without the need of constant orders.

Succession: two opportunities for IS’ enemies

The issue of succession regards both methodology and pragmaticism. To rise to the position of “caliph”, IS demanded several requisites such as the relation to the Quraysh tribe[3] and others detailed in the first issue of Dabiq magazine. This means that if on one hand it was possible for IS to trace al-Baghdadi’s lineage to the tribe (which arise quite a lot of questions on its reliability), on the other such link could not be so simple for its successor. In other words, IS is finding itself trapped within its own pseudo-theology. Although it is possible for the organization to “forge” the lineage, this would expose its back to strong counter narratives by anti-IS forces as well as internal oppositions and other candidates. IS’ “legitimacy” narrative is based on the correctness of their interpretation of religion. Therefore, if it is possible to prove or at least casting doubts on the requirements of a candidate, that would mine its authority and “legitimacy” over a group which encompasses a tapestry of organizations, each with their own agenda and characteristics and that find in the “caliph” their only real junction. IS’ second reorganization began with a video message in April 2019: since then, all IS’ wilayat pledged or renewed their allegiance more to the caliph than to the organization. An important detail which opens interesting chances (also on a “legal” perspective) for other candidates or secessionists as well as for counterterrorism. Tens of groups joined IS during its conquests but the current situation, with its “caliph” dead and under pressure on all fronts, could reinforce centrifugal pushes and lead some groups to secession. Moreover, if financial ties are severed along with the ideological junction, IS’ competitors and adversaries could seize the opportunity to attack, make separate peace talks or incorporate some IS’ formations. The reaction of al-Qaeda after the death of the “caliph” will be fundamental, given the constant call by Ayman al-Zawahiri for unity[4]. Considering these possibilities, IS could resort to a council with the aim of leading the group directly or until a suitable candidate is agreed upon.  

Exploiting IS’ vulnerabilities

The demise of IS’ “caliph” can still be managed by the organization. Having foresaw its defeat on the field, it is unlikely that its leadership and security apparatus – which for instance included some former intelligence officers under Saddam Hussein – have not considered the killing of the “caliph”. However, IS is strongly dependant on communication and the killing of the spokesperson al-Muhajir puts the group on a vulnerable position. Moreover Abu Ridwa, the “voice of IS” in several major media products such as Flames of War I and II and the Harvest of the Soldiers series, has been captured in February. This means that if an official spokesperson would greatly facilitate the acceptance of a new ruler by the affiliates, this possibility for IS is precluded. It is no coincidence that several coup d’état targeted communication channels and institutions: likewise, it is imperative to push forward and damaging IS’ communication as much as possible in order to spread further confusion among the soldiers and wide the distance between them and their leadership.

In conclusion, the killing of apical figures such as al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir does not mean that the IS menace is ended but it provides favourable conditions to strike a formidable blow to the organization. Burrowing and expression taken from the chess game, what happened in the last few days is a “check”, not a “checkmate”. The danger posed by IS is still present, both for what regards its present capability and its legacy. The legacy of al-Baghdadi will be probably used for propaganda and inspire new attacks: IS could turn this loss into a fire to reignite the embers of a group without a recognized leader, maybe by launching a new campaign. However, IS will have to manage it carefully in order to avoid casting a shadow over the future “caliph”.


[1] Methodology explained since the first issue of the magazine Dabiq in 2014.

[2] Please see the excellent series by Aymenn Al-Tamimi at

[3] The requirement is debated but enjoys wide consensus in the Sunni doctrine.

[4] Given that al-Baghdadi has been killed in an area under al-Qaeda’s influence, it is possible on the contrary that the relationship between the two groups could escalate into a wider conflict. Proper communication operations by the counterterrorism could facilitate such conflict and prevent the taking over by one of the group.