Islamic State confirmed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a weekend raid by US Special Forces in Syria and vowed revenge against the US.
The Iraqi rose from obscurity to lead the ultra-hardline group and declare himself “caliph” of all Muslims, holding sway over huge areas of Iraq and Syria from 2014-2017 before Islamic State’s control disintegrated under US-led attacks.
The group confirmed his death in an audio tape posted online and said a successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, was appointed.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at Swansea University focusing on Islamic State, said the name was unknown but could refer to a leading figure in Islamic State called Hajj Abdullah, who the US State Department identified as a possible successor.
A former senior figure in the rival Islamist group al Qaeda in Iraq, he is also known as Mohamed Said Abdelrahman al-Mawla.
Analysts named the Saudi Abu Abdullah al-Jizrawi and Abdullah Qaradash, an Iraqi and one of Baghdadi’s right-hand men, as potential successors along with Tunisian Abu Othman al-Tunisi.
An Islamic State spokesman warned the US in the tape to “beware vengeance against their nation and their brethren of infidels and apostates”.
Baghdadi’s death is likely to cause Islamic State to splinter, leaving whoever emerges as new leader with the task of pulling the group together as a fighting force, according to analysts.
Whether the loss of its leader will affect the group’s capabilities is open to debate. Even if it faces difficulties in the transition, the underlying ideology and the sectarian hatred it promotes remain attractive to many, analysts say.
Islamic State also confirmed the death of spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir.
“I think they’re trying to send the message, ‘Don’t think you’ve destroyed the project just because you’ve killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the official spokesman’,” Tamimi said.
Islamic State resorted to guerrilla attacks since losing its last significant territory in Syria in March.
Since Baghdadi’s death, it posted dozens of claims of responsibility for attacks in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the group, also known as ISIS or Daesh, would have picked the name Quraishi for Baghdadi’s successor to suggest descent from the Prophet Mohammad’s tribe.
Baghdadi’s “caliph” name also ended in Quraishi.
“ISIS is trying to show its followers it respects that tradition, but Muslims more widely aren’t likely to care, considering the wide violations of Islamic law ISIS has clearly engaged with,” Hellyer added.
In his last purported audio message, released in September, Baghdadi said operations were taking place daily and urged freedom for women jailed in Iraq and Syria on suspicion of links to the group.
He said the US and its proxies were defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan and the country was “dragged” into Mali and Niger.