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Iraqi prime minister declares end of Islamic State reign: Here's why the victory is only symbolic

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared the end of the protracted reign of the Islamic State in the country on Thursday. His announcement came just moments after government troops captured the ruined mosque at the heart of Islamic State's de facto capital Mosul.

"We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state," Al-Abadi tweeted.

This is not a literal end of the Islamic State. Rather, it is a symbolic one. After Iraqi forces invaded the vicinity of Nuri al-Kabeer Mosque in Mosul, the Islamic State blew up the mosque to contain the troops. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi had delivered a sermon declaring the establishment of the group's rule in Iraq and Syria in this particular mosque in 2014. Islamic State's move to blow up the mosque was termed as an "official declaration of defeat" by the prime minister. Therefore, capturing this worn down structure is now considered a sign of victory by Iraq. However, as Reuters points out Iraqi authorities expect the long battle for Mosul to end in "coming days". It is not over yet, unlike what Al-Abadi seems to imply. Al-Abadi's enthusiasm to declare the end of the Islamic State has lasted longer than expected. Last week, he tweeted that "we will soon announce the liberation of our city and our victory over Daesh."

It is a victory, but only a symbolic one. However, Al-Abadi's assurances seem hollow and repetitive, considering the number of times he has told the world that the end of the Islamic State is near.

After Iraqi military retook Ramadi from the Islamic State in December 2015, a triumphant Al-Abadi declared that the terror group will be defeated by 2016, The Independent reported. "2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh’s presence in Iraq will be terminated," he had said.

At the end of 2016, he said "it would take three months to remove the terror group from Iraq," as Reuters reported. After three months, he asked for some more time.

He predicted in March, 2017 that his country will defeat the Islamic State military forces "within weeks", according to Fox News. "Weeks" might be a connotation for "years" for the prime minister. (His symbolic victory cannot be considered as an actual removal of the Islamic State from Iraq)

File image of Islamic State leader Abu Baghdadi. Reuters

File image of Islamic State leader Abu Baghdadi. Reuters

Baghdadi killed or alive? That is the question

The claims of defeating the Islamic State don't just end with Iraqi prime minister's statements, reports of killing Baghdadi and securing a victory over the terror group are abound.

On Friday, an NDTV report quoted a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying that Baghdadi is "definitely dead". He threw this information on the reporters and refused to elaborate.

Just days before this, Russia claimed that it has killed the Islamic State chief in an air strike during a meeting of Islamic State leaders just outside Mosul. Just days after this declaration, Moscow said it could not yet confirm that the elusive Islamic State chief had been killed. US defence officials also said they have been unable to confirm the reports of his death.

Baghdadi was also said to have died of his injuries a week after being blasted in a US-led airstrike in June, 2016. The Islamic State’s news agency al-Amaq said, "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed by coalition air strikes in Raqqa on the fifth day of Ramadan." Just months after, he was also believed to have been poisoned along with three of his commanders.

The question remains, even if Baghdadi is dead, would that mark the end of the Islamic State?

Highly unlikely.

Baghdadi dies, Islamic State still lives

The future of the Islamic State after Baghdadi's death might be similar to the Al-Qaeda. After Osama bin Laden was killed, then US president Barack Obama said, "There's no doubt Al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us" and bin Laden's death would not by itself end the organisation.

Even five years after bin Laden’s death, The Atlantic report points out that Al-Qaeda has remained active and in some cases, it has expanded. The Al-Qaeda's resilience is an example of how terrorist organisations can outlast their leader.

The report also mentions a 2011 study of "leadership decapitation" of terrorist groups, conducted by Robert Pape and Jenna Jordan of the University of Chicago, which found that for religious groups like Al-Qaeda, the death or imprisonment of a leader doesn't hasten the group's demise, and indeed may have the opposite effect.

The idea in killing the leader of any terror group is only to "cut off the head of the snake." As the Newsweek article says, it will only be a PR victory and won't alter the command and control of the organisation. Despite being on the brink of military defeat, the group’s ideology will be much harder to wipe out.

"The structure of Islamic State is destroyed, but the underlying forces are not - they are being worsened," AlJazeera quoted an expert as saying.

Therefore, presuming Baghdadi is dead, it won’t lead to an immediate collapse of the entire organisation. It might trigger the Islamic State fighters to launch more attacks in revenge, as the Taliban was planning after Laden’s death. Alternatively, the Islamic State fighters might join other organisations but continue with the same terror activities.

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2017 15:32 PM

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