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How Much Does ISIS Really Need al-Baghdadi?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaches in Mosul, Iraq, on July 5, 2014. 

Photo by Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A senior aide to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reportedly killed in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend. There are also some sketchy and unconfirmed reports that Baghdadi himself was injured.

The news is striking, in part, because of how rarely we hear anything about al-Baghdadi. When ISIS first swept across Iraq last summer, there were few available photos of him and the scant available biographical information was often contradictory. Now, even after months of intense media scrutiny on the Islamic State, its leader still remains very much the “invisible sheikh.” For a man who considers himself the leader of the entire Muslim world, he keeps an awfully low profile.

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This raises the question of just how much ISIS, a group that has gone through four leaders in the last decade, really needs al-Baghdadi and how much it would miss him if he were gone.

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He certainly isn’t serving as the face of the operation. With the notable exception of the ceremony in Mosul in July when he declared himself caliph, Baghdadi almost never appears in public and many of his own fighters have reportedly never seen him face to face. Unlike al-Qaida’s Osama Bin Laden, for instance, he rarely appears in the group’s slickly produced propaganda videos. His official biography, which emphasizes his credentials as a religious scholar, is likely at least partly fabricated. From a PR standpoint—and this is more important than it sounds given how important it is for ISIS to continue to appeal to prospective foreign fighters—it doesn’t seem like all that much would change if he were taken out of the picture.

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He also doesn’t seem to enjoy much standing with other jihadist groups, most of whom have rebuffed his proposals for cooperation and dismissed his self-identification as caliph. However, the announcement today that Egypt’s largest militant group has pledged its allegiance to ISIS may suggest that this is about to change.

Early features on al-Baghdadi emphasized his fundraising prowess and his ability to tap into the network of wealthy donors who had originally funded his rivals in al-Qaida. But the amount of these donations may have been exaggerated to begin with and doesn’t appear to be a large part of the group’s cash flow today. Oil revenues, taxes, tolls, and loot from the areas the group controls, not to mention prisoner ransoms, are probably a lot more important.

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It also seems unlikely that al-Baghdadi is distinguishing himself through battlefield prowess. According to a recent detailed analysis of ISIS leadership by the Soufan Group, al-Baghdadi likely has “no military background or experience” and probably doesn’t directly take part in operations. The group’s military structure is decentralized, and al-Baghdadi doesn’t seem to micromanage his commanders. A “local commander will know what he has to achieve, and even where to attack, but the exact timing and method may be left to his discretion,” the report notes.

But while al-Baghdadi may not be a charismatic leader or a skilled military tactician, his skills as a politician appear formidable. The Soufan Group notes that his appointment as head of the organization in 2010 despite his lack of a “track record either as a fighter or as a leader” was a surprise to many ISIS members. But the report says that he has since “enhanced and consolidated his authority and control. He has had rivals killed and senior positions filled with his supporters.”

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He has also, needless to say, built a massive pseudostate despite the opposition of every government in the region, challenged century-old borders, and taken on Osama Bin Laden’s successor in a battle for control of the international jihadist movement. The man does not lack for audacity.

That ISIS hasn’t fallen apart yet is something of a marvel. The group’s fighters are a combination of locals and untrained international volunteers. Its leaders are a mix of lifelong jihadists and born-again ex-Baathists. Its resources are stretched thin across a territory it barely controls. The man who is keeping this all together through sheer willpower, audacity, and ruthlessness probably shouldn’t be underestimated.

Al-Baghdadi is certainly no Bin Laden. But another leader with his skill set would be hard to find.

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