Islamic State's 'caliph' is alive, but killing him won't change much; such groups thrive when societies fail to mediate conflicts

Islamic State's caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s message will give hope to jihadists in many parts of the world, but it’s important to remember that IS has sustained itself, and expanded in new regions without hearing from him

Praveen Swami April 30, 2019 20:56:16 IST
Islamic State's 'caliph' is alive, but killing him won't change much; such groups thrive when societies fail to mediate conflicts
  • Killing an Osama bin Laden or Islamic State caliph al-Badri gives the illusion of progress in the war against terrorism — but it’s only an illusion

  • Jihadism, like all other forms of terrorism has emerged and grown in a specific milieu: nation-states which have degenerated into tyrannies; societies unable to mediate conflicts

  • It’s important to remember the jihadist movement has sustained itself, and expanded in new regions like the Philippines, West Africa and Sri Lanka — without hearing from al-Badri

  • India escaped the fate of its neighbours — Sri Lanka and Pakistan — because of relatively robust democratic institutions, and a civil society capable of mediating crisis of identity and class

  • With India in the midst of seismic political and cultural changes, the weave that ties the country together is strained as never before

He confessed his sins under the dubious shade provided by a single, scraggly tree on a blazing afternoon. Then, he obediently bent his head over the block of wood his executioners had prepared for him. His head was pulled back, and his neck slowly sawed through with a carving knife. The decollation was filmed with languid precision: gonzo pornography, but with death as its climax, instead of orgasm.

Since 2014, when Islamic State began broadcasting mass killings, led by chief executioner Muhammad Emzawi, the savage spectacle has defined its global danger. Except, this particular video had nothing to do with the Islamic State. Its author was Mexico’s Viagras in Michoacán, and the video was just one of the thousands released by rival narco cartels in a war that has claimed over 1,25,000 lives.

Islamic States caliph is alive but killing him wont change much such groups thrive when societies fail to mediate conflicts

A file image of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made from video posted on a militant website on 29 April. AP

Earlier this week, the Islamic State released its latest video: a short proof-of-life testament from the self-proclaimed caliph of this dystopia, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Large volumes of commentary have since been generated on the video’s significance.

The truth is, it has almost no consequence at all.

Following 9/11, the world went to war on terror. That war has failed: it’s proved impossible to build states and polities in which violence isn’t the language of power. In such political landscapes, the death of an al-Badri is only an interlude, which will enable another to arise.

The video

Few terrorists, it seems fair to say, have been proclaimed dead quite as often as al-Badri. In the summer of 2016, there were reports he had been injured in an airstrike in Iraq, killed in another one in Syria, and then poisoned by an assassin. Then, in 2017, he was, among other things reported to have been killed in a United States-led artillery bombardment, and killed again in a Russian airstrike.

The urge to proclaim al-Badri dead tells us something important: the death of the evil monster, we hope, like children reading a fairy-tale, will allow good to triumph again. There will be no Colombo, we imagine, if there will not be an al-Badri.

In truth, al-Badri is just part of a large cohort of voices who fire the mind of young jihadists globally. Figures like al-Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki, slain in 2011, or Abdullah ’Azzam have inspired jihadists across generations — and research shows motivation by local ideologues and peers is often key to recruitment.

Forty seconds long, the Islamic State clip released on 29 April does little other than to establish al-Badri is alive — a message of hope to his global following.

"The battle of Baghuz is over,” he says, referring to the eviction of Islamic State forces from their last territorial in Syria by Kurdish forces in late March.

“But it did show the savagery, brutality and ill intentions of the Christians towards the Muslim community.

“Truthfully,” he goes on, “the battle of Islam and its people against the cross and its people is a long battle.”

Later in the video, text running across the screen lauds “our brothers in Sri Lanka for their allegiance to the caliphate".

"And we advise them to stick to the cause of God and unity and to be a thorn in the chest of the crusaders,” it adds.

Al-Badri’s message will give hope to jihadists in many parts of the world. But it’s important to remember the jihadist movement has sustained itself, and expanded in new regions like the Philippines, West Africa and Sri Lanka — without hearing from al-Badri.

Civilisational threat

The problem is this: in many parts of the world, savagery is the norm. In 2015, many were shocked by the Islamic State’s public burning of Jordanian air force pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. It’s a fair bet many others weren’t: apartheid collaborators and opponents in South Africa met the same fate, often delivered as a sentence by popular courts. Protestors in Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire and Haiti have used the same means.

La Familia Michoacána, one of Mexico’s major cartels until 2011, had evolved an ideological project with evangelical roots, casting its criminality as a militarised form of Christianity. In territories under its control, La Familia flogged “sinners”, ranging from sex workers to teenagers wearing sagging pants or hairnets.

"Skinning people, cutting out their hearts, castrating them or cutting off their breasts, throwing them in a vat of acid, or setting them on fire while they are alive is incrementally becoming more accepted in narcoculture," the scholar David Amador observes.

That, he went on, is "creating a growing cadre of hardened killers; some of whom are still in their childhoods".

Even this isn’t new. Hundreds used to gather in Kabul to witness and applaud brutal stoning of purported criminals in Taliban-era Kabul — they still do in the parts of the country it controls. Even though the Taliban were evicted from power after 9/11, it proved impossible to rebuild civil society and robust state institutions.

In Kampuchea, the French-educated Saloth Sar’s revolutionaries carried out public savageries on an industrial scale in the 1970s, killing more than two million people. The scars, decades later, are still visible, in the form of repressive government.

Killing an Osama bin Laden or al-Badri gives the illusion of progress in the war against terrorism — but it’s only an illusion. Afghanistan isn’t any less an incubator for jihadism now Bin Laden is dead; in fact, levels of violence have grown. In terms of its geographical reach, al-Qaeda has expanded.

Islamic State savagery, of the kind seen recently in Sri Lanka and so many times earlier, isn’t an invention of the Islamic State. Jihadism, like all other forms of terrorism has emerged and grown in a specific milieu: nation-states which have degenerated into tyrannies; societies unable to mediate conflicts; cultures where civic norms and values have vanished.

Historian Walter Benjamin imagined the angel of history thus: "Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed."

“But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.”

“This storm,” he concluded, “we call progress.”

For Indians, the image ought be one that provokes reflection. India escaped the fate of its neighbours — a murderous civil war in Sri Lanka, the transformation of the state itself into a religious tyranny in Pakistan — because of relatively robust democratic institutions, and a civil society capable of mediating crisis of identity and class.

Today, however, with India in the midst of seismic political and cultural changes, the weave that ties the country together is strained as never before.

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