On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group monitoring the war in Syria, reported the death of self-proclaimed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The claim has not yet been independently verified by news organizations and he has been declared dead at least a dozen times before.
But this report seems all the more plausible considering Iraqi security forces just declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold in Mosul, after nearly nine months of what may be the worst urban warfare since World War II.
ISIS’ own propaganda arm released an unverified video Tuesday of a flattened Mosul, entitled “Fighting Till The Last Gasp.” To Western viewers, this could look like confirmation of the group’s defeat there.
Jeremi Suri, a professor, and chair for leadership in global affairs at UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs says while ISIS on its way out of Mosul, that doesn’t mean it will stop functioning as a terror group.
On whether the fall of Mosul is the “last gasp” for ISIS:
“The fall of Mosul is the fall of the ISIS ambition to create a caliphate. But ISIS as an organization, as a network of terror operators, might be as strong as ever because of the followers that they’ve acquired.”
On how ISIS’ trajectory compares to that of the Taliban:
“I think there are some parallels. I think ISIS is, in a sense, more threatening, because they have an international following involving internet savvy, involving all sorts of sympathizers in France, in Belgium, elsewhere, on a scale that the Taliban never had.”
On what will happen to ISIS as an organization, now that it has lost its base in Iraq, and its leader?
“It certainly means that there will not be a territorial center. …[T]his organization is becoming more diffuse, more decentralized and in that way it’s less organized and the scale of its threats might be less serious but the number of threats and the areas they operate in will not diminish as a consequence of this.”
On the many fronts in the battle against ISIS:
“[It] has all sorts of sympathizers and individuals who are persuaded by what they do who are not necessarily coordinated on a daily basis. So, you cannot follow direct orders from one central point to actors in different areas. You have to anticipate and take measures, hopefully to discourage people from becoming sympathizers.”
On how these events change Washington’s so-called war on terror:
“The war on terror was misconstrued, misdefined and misapplied. It has never been a fight against a particular entity in one place, nor has it ever been primarily a military struggle. …There will always be disgruntled elements in our society but it’s really a war over persuading those disgruntled entities to see that they have more of a stake in the present than a stake in destroying the world that we exist in today.”
Written by Caroline Covington.