The “caliph” who ran
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS leadership have reportedly fled to Syria. How will this affect their image both in and outside of Iraq?
Reports are coming in from Iraqi and Kurdish sources stating that ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other leading members have fled from Iraq to Syria in the wake of a series of joint US-Kurdish-Iraqi offensives. Speaking to al-Shorfa, Lt. Gen. Qasim al-Atta stated, “Successful air and ground attacks carried out by Iraqi and peshmerga [Kurdish military] forces in northern Iraq achieved great results last week, clearly weakening and disrupting the group and killing scores of its fighters.”
Likewise, in a statement to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Saʿiyd Mamo Zinni, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, announced Kurdish intelligence sources had concluded that al-Baghdadi fled “Mosul for Syria a few days ago,” traveling “as part of a convoy of 30 Hummer vehicles after fearing being targeted by US airstrikes.”
Zinni also said that the peshmerga had been responsible for killing an unconfirmed number of leading ISIS figures.
Based on reports from an anonymous informant inside Mosul, Ashraq al-Awsat also reported that ISIS fighters had apparently been so badly beaten by Kurdish forces that “ISIS have taken over an entire floor of Mosul Hospital … and had also launched a drive for local residents to donate blood to the wounded.”
It would appear that US airstrikes have given Iraqi and Kurdish militaries a badly needed boost. Coupled with recent reports that Britain has already begun to expand its participation in Iraq beyond humanitarian purposes to include military support from its air force, it is clear ISIS will no longer be getting a free ride on the support of Sunni tribal leadership, some of whom have openly acknowledged that they have thrown support to ISIS as a way of holding the beleaguered Iraqi nation hostage until their sectarian demands (“conditions”) are met.
The psychological impact of fleeing military leadership—let alone that of the “caliph” himself—both within ISIS itself, and among Sunni militant groups across the globe, ought not to be underestimated. Slick ISIS internet propaganda relies upon purveying an image of a steel will and indomitable resistance. More importantly, it relies on projecting the gang of terrorists as always on the advance, never on the retreat. Taking off for the hills is hardly fits the image of the rugged ISIS fighter, who is not only supposed to be ready for martyrdom, but actively seeking it.
Should they even bother to acknowledge this apparent retreat, the ISIS media team will either outright deny the accuracy of the aforementioned reports and their sources, or will attempt to provide a plausible alternative explanation. Still, with the movement of al-Baghdadi and senior leadership to Syria coming merely days after 500lb. laser-guided American bombs began falling from the skies, it’s difficult to imagine what that explanation might be, and any claims of coincidence will be hard to swallow.
This is particularly so because the “holy warriors” of ISIS, to say nothing of their leadership, are meant to be “lions of God”— not dogs running away from the battlefield with their tails between their legs at the first whiff of real danger. If these reports continue to receive confirmation, let alone increasingly widespread attention, ISIS faces a serious street credit problem. Indeed, it will prove difficult if not impossible for even their most ardent supporters to ever again take seriously the group’s endless stream of social media preening and posturing—not when they have made their name on a mountain of campy bluster and bravado.
No amount of militant sloganeering or crisis management magic will be able to fix the crippling and humiliating dishonor al-Baghdadi has now brought upon their over-hyped brand image. For a group that claims to be the true heirs of Bin Laden, it’s hard to imagine how ISIS could have handed a bigger “I-told-you-so” to their naysayers in the al-Qaʿidah franchise, their split with whom was both bitter and all-too-public—or a bigger PR coup to their native Iraqi opposition in the Shiʿi militias.