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What Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's Death Means For The Future Of ISIS


What is the future of ISIS? Over the past six months, it has lost the land it once held in Syria and Iraq. Now it's lost its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and yet thousands of people still claim loyalty to the terrorist group.

Lina Khatib is an expert on ISIS. She's head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London, from where she joins us now. Welcome.

LINA KHATIB: Thank you.

KELLY: What does the death of Baghdadi mean? And I suppose I'm especially interested given that he had been on the run for so long and in hiding. Was he actually leading ISIS in any meaningful way?

KHATIB: Baghdadi never really led ISIS in any meaningful way. Baghdadi was mainly a symbolic figurehead for ISIS, the leader who was the caliph so that ISIS could prove it had a caliphate, whose role was to rally people from around the world to join this group. So with his loss, ISIS did not lose much operational capacity at all.

KELLY: To this question of who actually runs ISIS on a day-to-day level, is there such a person? How centralized is the group?

KHATIB: ISIS is not a centralized group anymore. It used to be centralized when it had a so-called state, but then the centralization was not through Baghdadi. It wasn't through one person. There is a group of people who are all the leadership of ISIS, and this group is formed of former Baath Iraqi officials and also veterans from al-Qaida who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.

And these people still exist. They're still in charge, except that with the loss of territory, they have lost the centralized command that they used to have, forcing ISIS to increasingly become a group dependent on opportunistic attacks around the world conducted by groups simply calling themselves ISIS even if they only had a loose connection to the origins of the group.

KELLY: What set ISIS apart from other terror groups was that they had the caliphate, that they had actual land, actual territory. Does that remain, at least theoretically, an ambition?

KHATIB: Theoretically, it is an ambition for ISIS, and ISIS is using the restoration of the caliphate as a rallying tool now for its supporters and sympathizers around the world.

KELLY: And is there any chatter in ISIS circles of where, what actual space they might be eyeing?

KHATIB: With the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria and with the presence of the anti-ISIS coalition forces in the area, it is practically impossible for ISIS to even imagine reestablishing an Islamic state in that region. Instead, they are looking to increase their presence in places like eastern Afghanistan and the southern desert of Libya. From these two locations, it is Afghanistan that is seeing most activity.

And they are also expanding to neighboring countries like Pakistan, Iran, even India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Tajikistan. And therefore, there is a new hub in the making in Afghanistan, but it remains very small in scale compared to what ISIS used to have in Syria and Iraq.

KELLY: Last thing - the relationship between ISIS and al-Qaida, which, in these last several years, has been a fierce rivalry. Does the death of Baghdadi open the door in any way to some kind of rapprochement?

KHATIB: The death of Baghdadi came while he was being hosted by hardline al-Qaida groups in Syria. Although the two groups have fought to politically over power, ultimately, al-Qaida and ISIS share exactly the same ideology, and the death of Baghdadi is likely to turn some of the groups that have flown the ISIS flag more towards al-Qaida. And in a way, both groups might feel that the best way is to consolidate rather than compete with one another going forward.

KELLY: Is there any way to read that as other than bad news - a possible consolidation of al-Qaida and ISIS?

KHATIB: Unfortunately, there is bad news ahead, but the good news is that these groups do not have the capacity that they once had or the ideological sway. Especially it's that a lot of people who had been perhaps fooled by the ISIS utopia, once they actually lived under ISIS control, realized how horrific this group is, and it is not something they would want to go back to live under.

KELLY: Lina Khatib - she's head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London. Thank you.

KHATIB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.