On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed by U.S. Special Forces during a raid Saturday night at Baghdadi’s compound located in the village of Barisha in Syria’s Idlib province. According to officials, U.S. troops entered the compound using eight helicopters and were on the ground for more than two hours. During the raid, Baghdadi reportedly detonated a suicide vest after retreating into a dead-end tunnel, killing himself and three of his children. U.S. officials also confirmed two of Baghdadi’s wives were killed in the raid, in addition to six “enemy fighters.” No U.S. personnel were killed during the operation, but one military canine was wounded in the explosion. Additionally, U.S. officials announced that two unidentified adult males were taken captive during the raid and are now located in a secure facility. President Trump also announced that “sensitive information” relating to ISIS was seized during the raid. In a statement released after the raid, Iraq’s military stated that its intelligence services had located the ISIS leader’s location, and passed the information to U.S. intelligence officials.
Baghdadi’s death will have unforeseen consequences for ISIS, as Baghdadi was a spiritual leader and caliph who often dictated the strategic direction of the group. During Baghdadi’s rule, ISIS declared a caliphate across Iraq and Syria, and harnessed the internet to amass global followers to join the terror organization. This diffused model of leadership has allowed ISIS sympathizers to operate alone or in small groups, expanding the group’s ability to carry out attacks abroad. Additionally, ISIS is believed to have sleeper cells operating in secrecy throughout the Middle East, allowing ISIS fighters to carry out guerilla-style warfare against security forces in the region. Groups who have pledged loyalty or have been inspired by ISIS in other parts of the world are also likely to continue their fights with the same operational tempo and ability. ISIS branches in Afghanistan, Libya, the Philippines, the Sinai Peninsula and Nigeria still pose a formidable threat to regional security operations. This decentralized structure of ISIS will likely allow the group to carry on, despite the loss of Baghdadi. ISIS has previously survived the death of its founder and two successors before Baghdadi became its leader, making it highly likely that the group will remain a threat. ISIS media channels have yet to confirm Baghdadi’s death, and have not alluded to potential successors, though experts say it is likely senior leadership will announce the new successor in the coming days.
Retaliatory attacks are a concern for authorities after the deaths of high profile leaders in foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). A key issue is how self-reliant individuals that are ideologically aligned with ISIS may react in the aftermath of Baghdadi’s death. Despite losing major territory this year in the Middle East, ISIS’ violent ideology has yet to be eradicated. For the past ten years, ISIS has had a strong social media presence, which remains an effective tactic used by the terrorist group to recruit members and inspire lone-wolf attacks. These types of operatives may try to commit smaller scale attacks that require less planning and resources, making them difficult for law enforcement to detect and mitigate. The possibility of a retaliatory attack by ISIS sympathizers has caused law enforcement agencies around the world and in the U.S. to remain on high alert. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) urged law enforcement agencies to “operate at a heightened state of vigilance” due to concerns of possible retaliation from sympathizers. DHS issued a similar warning after the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The warning was sent to all law enforcement, however, no domestic retaliation attack was ever reported to have materialized. In response to Baghdadi’s death, the U.S. has increased vigilance on social media platforms to monitor for potential threats or attack-plots. Authorities in Europe have also issued warnings of possible retaliatory attacks. France’s Interior Minister called for increased vigilance to prevent attacks in the coming days. France has been the target of numerous high-profile ISIS attacks in the past, including the 2015 Paris attack that killed 131. Authorities have stated that there are currently no known credible threats in response to al-Baghdadi’s death; however, law enforcement and security personnel across the globe have advised the populace to remain alert and report any suspicious activity to authorities.