On Oct. 27, the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself with a suicide vest during a U.S. raid in Idlib.
Two of Baghdadi’s children were killed in the explosion, as well as four women and one other man who detonated their own suicide vests upon the arrival of U.S. forces. An unknown number of ISIS fighters died before the raid, after a skirmish with U.S. helicopters.
The spokesperson of ISIS, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed around the same time by the CIA in Aleppo.
President Trump held a press conference after the raid and said “capturing or killing al-Baghdadi has been the top national security priority of my administration. He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone.”
Trump also said Baghdadi fled from U.S. forces into the cave he died in, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”
Paul Salem, an expert on Syria from the Middle East Institute, told NPR Baghdadi’s death is “very significant. … of course, this doesn’t mean at all the end of ISIS, but it is a major development.”
The terrorist organization began as part of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda had separate operations in Syria and Iraq from 2003 until 2014, when a splinter group stationed in Iraq moved to Syria. The splinter group would go on to merge with Al Qaeda in Syria and later form ISIS.
The goal of ISIS was to establish an Islamic caliphate, which is a political-religious state under the leadership of an Islamic steward called a caliph.
Dr. Gregory Aldous, Assistant Professor of History, explained the instrumental role of a caliph in an Islamic state.
“The ‘caliph’ was this guy who served as the symbol of unity for the Muslim community,” Dr. Aldous said. “He was … supposed to ensure that the rules of Islam were being carried out, and the Islamic community is protected, and he organized military operations.”
The terror group went on to capture territories in Iraq, such as the city of Mosul and areas around the southern border of Baghdad. ISIS also controlled large swaths of Syria for some time.
ISIS was also well known for spreading their radical message via propaganda over several social media sites, such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, and YouTube.
According to Mike Rogers of the NY Daily News, they post videos with a high production value, with tough looking fighters goofing around in an attempt to make jihadism look fun and enticing.
Dr. Aldous explained this may help ISIS radicalize their recruits and appeal to youth.
“With social media, you’re mainly going to get younger people,” Dr. Aldous said. “What happens to a lot of people is as they get older, they see the world as more nuanced, more complicated. When you’re young, it’s easier to view the world in more black and white terms. So, oftentimes, these radical movements will attract young people.”
On Oct. 31, ISIS named a new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (also spelled Qurashi). There is little known about Qurayshi, although his name suggests he’s claimed lineage to the Qurayshi tribe from ancient Mecca, which Muhammad was believed to be part of.
Shortly after ISIS’s announcement of Qurayshi’s leadership, a U.S. state official told reporters “he is probably not going to enjoy his promotion” and Trump’s administration “intend[s] to subject him and any other ISIS leader to unrelenting pressure, using all the tools at our disposal.”
Although ISIS has no remaining territory, the Pentagon’s watchdog says it still has up to 18,000 members in Iraq and Syria. Around 12,000 ISIS militants have recently escaped prison as well, after the Kurdish forces guarding the prisons fled eastern Syria and Turkey invaded the area.
A member of ISIS told ABC News, “[the loss of the caliphate] doesn’t matter. The people exist. The people are there. … Maybe it is going to become worse. It’s more dangerous than before.”