The killing of the two top leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI – al-Qaeda’s umbrella group in Iraq), Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri (a.k.a Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), came at a crucial time for the organization. The need for symbolic figures in the leadership of the group, and the important role played by al-Baghdadi, was one of the main issues dealt with in a document released last February by ISI sympathizers. Intended to suggest a new strategy for the ISI, the document indicated the necessity of having political symbols at the group’s highest levels:
"The symbolic status of the Amir al-Mumineen [i.e. al-Baghdadi] should be preserved and more effort should be dedicated to develop it in order to protect the jihadi project.  Therefore, we have to work to provide a suitable replacement, which is the deputy Amir, in case anything happened, God forbid, to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. This would enable that deputy to smoothly precede the mission. He would not have to have the hard start of al-Baghdadi. That could be done by letting him [the deputy] release some audio messages where he could take up some of the Amir’s work. That would create acceptance for the deputy Amir among the people and the media (Hanein.info, February 20)."
Nevertheless, the ISI has not shown any sign of adopting that suggestion and when it announced the killing of its leaders there was no prompt succession process in place.
Knowing that al-Baghdadi and al-Masri were the only ISI figures that had material placed on the web under their names or had released audio-tape statements, the serious impact on the ISI of losing both these individuals at the same time appears obvious.
When the name Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was presented as the leader of the newly-established ISI in 2006, many insurgents and locals debated the significance and even the reality of this otherwise unknown individual. This was one of the reasons that the majority of the insurgent groups and the local Sunni community leaders did not recognize al-Baghdadi or his ISI. When the ISI adopted harsh measures in seeking obedience to al-Baghdadi these efforts had a negative impact on the Sunni community’s acceptance of the ISI. The Sunni community, which was meant to be the host of al-Qaeda in Iraq, instead began to turn against it.
Due to its nature, the position of the head of the ISI cannot be vacant for long. The group might find itself forced to pick another unknown figure as its leader. This will add another complication to thorny relations between the ISI and Iraqi Sunnis. It is unlikely that such a nominee would be able to gain the support of any influential power within the community or the insurgency, resulting in the increasing isolation of the ISI.
The answer for the succession question might come from outside the structure of the ISI. One of the few leading Salafi-Jihadi figures to survive the conflict in Iraq so far is Abu Abdullah al Shafi’e. The ambition of this Kurd, who leads the Ansar al-Islam (AI) insurgent group, might be greater than his current role offers. A few days after the killing of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi, the A.I., which did not join the ISI, issued a condolence statement published in jihadi forums. Most of the comments on that statement called for unification between the ISI and the A.I.. Al-Shafi’e could have a chance for a leadership bid under these circumstances. However this would not be easy, as the ISI was supposedly al-Qaeda’s initiative to defend the Sunni Arabs in Iraq and shape their own political entity outside the occupation-approved government in Baghdad. Al-Baghdadi was the group’s indigenous leader. Even though al-Shafi’e follows the Salafi-Jihadi path, as a Kurd he would not match the ISI leadership criteria without significant changes in the direction and ideology of the ISI (see alfaloja.net, April 28).
Another insurgent leader who might seek the position is Abu Muhammad al-Iraqi, the leader of another small Sunni insurgent group, the Jaysh Abu Bakr al-Siddiq al-Salafi (JABSS). Al-Iraqi’s condolence statement was also published on prominent Salafi internet forums. It was interesting that al-Iraqi indicated in his statement that his group had not joined the ISI yet. The statement also attracted calls from forum members for a merger with the ISI (Hanein.info, April 26).
It is important to note that even with daunting strategic, logistical and structural difficulties, the ISI was still able to maintain its ability to launch massive attacks. Three days after the killing of its leaders, the group struck, killing and injuring 300 people in a series of bombings that targeted Shi’a mosques in Baghdad, a judge and police officers in the dominantly Sunni province of al-Anbar (Albaghdadia.com, April 23; Assafir, April 24). When al-Qaeda in Iraq lost its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in June 2006, its attacks did not stop. On the contrary, they increased significantly until the emergence of the Sunni tribal Awakening councils that fought al-Qaeda and drove them from many Sunni areas.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq might remain a security threat for sometime, even after the killing of its two leaders, but its project of establishing a radical state in the Sunni part of Iraq is struggling. Iraqi Sunnis turned out in significant numbers to vote in the recent elections, and their integration into the political system will make it even harder for the Salafi-Jihadi ideology to spread in Iraq.
1. In ISI literature al-Baghdadi carried the title of Amir al-Mumineen (The Leader of the Believers). It was the formal title of the Muslim Caliph, the head of the historical Islamic state.