When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dies, his organization will suffer a significant strategic defeat — but not destruction.
The issue bears consideration following an Iraqi government official's claim on Tuesday that al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded in a recent coalition airstrike. According to Abu Ali al-Basri, al-Baghdadi is now in the care of supporters somewhere along the Iraq-Syria border. While al-Basri is known for his love of the media spotlight and cannot be considered highly reliable here, it is likely that al-Baghdadi will be dead soon.
Regardless, geography is now key to al-Baghdadi's vulnerability.
With ISIS limited to a few towns along the Euphrates river valley and a narrow area of the Iraq-Syria border north of the Euphrates river, its ability to hide top leaders is increasingly challenged.
Many have already met their end under coalition airstrikes or special operations raids. And while al-Baghdadi has avoided capture by remaining with a very small group of loyal followers and by avoiding regular contact with his deputy commanders, his ability to continue evading the dragnet is limited. If he has not already done so, the ISIS leader will now likely attempt to hide with ISIS supporters in a city or town under Iraqi control. The challenge for al-Baghdadi is that these settlements operate under an extensive web of checkpoints and that the coalition and its intelligence partners watch convoys leaving ISIS territory very closely.
But what will follow when the murderous caliph does eventually meet death? Well, first, ISIS will suffer a significant strategic defeat. As the leader of that which just a couple of years ago promised a propaganda-credible global caliphate, al-Baghdadi's end will fuel disenchantment in the ranks. ISIS's vision of global empire is already losing appeal in that its subjects spend most of their time running around the desert trying to avoid being droned. Combining this with the fact ISIS's stars are facing detention and trial in Cuba, things aren't looking great.
Still, this won't be the group's end.
Thanks to its propaganda appeal to losers, ISIS will continue to pose terrorist threats across the world (including in Europe and the United States). And al-Baghdadi's demise might actually help the group in one area. It will speed the group's organizational shift back toward a series of highly compartmentalized and decentralized cells operating under entrepreneurial leaders. These groups will seek to drive Iraqis against Haider al-Abadi's Iraqi government and foment new sectarian tension that allows ISIS' second rebirth. While it will necessarily sacrifice the narrative of a caliphate, ISIS' sacrifice of formal command structures (see Aymenn al-Tamimi and Kyle Orton) will give the group more flexibility to fight.
Moreover, unless the U.S. is able to insulate the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria from Bashar Assad's regime and offer Syrian Sunnis a credible path towards longer term political empowerment, ISIS will find fertile ground in which to plant new roots for its revival.
So yes, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death is coming and it is welcome. Yet unless the U.S. remains focused on the durable defeat of ISIS fighters, their grievance base and their ideology, they will eventually recover their strength.