Yesterday, Al-Arabiya reported that a U.S. airstrike on a gathering of Islamic State leaders at a house near al-Qaim, Iraq had “critically wounded” Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While the Pentagon is staying silent regarding the strike that supposedly wounded Baghdadi, the Iraqi military has released a statement, however short, backing al-Arabiya’s claim and unnamed Iraqi sources are speaking to the press. The below is from the AP today:
An Interior Ministry intelligence official told The Associated Press that al-Baghdadi was hit during a meeting Saturday with militants in the town of Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The official, citing informants within the militant group, said the strikes wounded al-Baghdadi. A senior Iraqi military official also said he learned in operational meetings that al-Baghdadi had been wounded.
Neither knew the extent of al-Baghdadi’s apparent injuries. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential material. State television later also reported that al-Baghdadi had been wounded.
While the extent of Baghdadi’s injuries aren’t yet known (indeed, he might not be hurt at all) it’s interesting to consider what his death might mean for the larger regional fight between the Islamic State and, well, everyone else.
Traditionally, as extremist leaders are killed, they’ve simply pushed another commander to the fore and everything’s gone along in more or less the same manner as it was, depending on that new commander’s abilities. In this case, however, Baghdadi is the first person in modern memory to claim to be a “Caliph” of a Caliphate. Symbolically, this could result in undermining the very idea of a legitimate Caliphate.
If he’s simply wounded then, of course, he would simply go on being the Caliph although, according to some, his credibility would be damaged if he were to, say, end up losing a limb.
The wounding and potential loss of Baghdadi may be of more significance for his followers. Baghdadi, as “Caliph Ibrahim,” to maintain his religious foundation, needs to be of a whole body. If he loses a limb in his injuries then his credibility suffers because a body free from defects is seen as essential for fulfilling the Caliph’s duties.
The rationale for why this would make Baghdadi weaker both as an individual and a spiritual leader is actually quite interesting. From MuslimPhilosophy.com:
(4) Freedom of the senses and limbs from defects or incapacitations such as insanity, blindness, muteness, or deafness, and from any loss of limbs affecting (the imam’s) ability to act, such as missing hands, feet, or testicles, is a condition of the imamate, because all such defects affect the (imam’s) full ability to act and to fulfill his duties. Even in the case of a defect that merely disfigures the appearance, as, for instance, loss of one limb, the condition of freedom from defects (remains in force as a condition in the sense that it) aims at perfection (in the imam).
Lack of freedom of action is connected with loss of limbs. Such a lack may be of two kinds. One is forced (inaction) and complete inability to act through imprisonment or the like. (Absence of any restriction upon freedom of action) is as necessary a condition (of the imamate) as freedom from bodily defects. The other kind is in a different category. (This lack of freedom of action implies that) some of (the imam’s) men gain power over him, although no disobedience or disagreement may be involved, and keep him in seclusion. Then, the problem is shifted to the person who has gained power. If he acts in accordance with Islam and justice and praiseworthy policies, it is permissible to acknowledge (the imam). If not, the Muslims must look for help. (They must look to) persons who will restrain him and eliminate the unhealthy situation created by him, until the caliph’s power of action is re-established.
Of course all this speculation may be purely academic. Al-Baghdadi may be completely fine and watching as the media and U.S. coalition forces scramble to try to figure out what’s going on. It’s certainly happened before.
Want to know a bit more about the origins of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? This video will bring you up to speed in under 2 and a half minutes.