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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Friday, July 4, 2014

In the Future, All Your Leaders Will Be Empty Suits

UPDATE: Did you ever wish you'd written a blog post a week earlier? Shortly after I posted this, IS sources began to indicate that IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had given the khutba in Mosul on Friday and that video was forthcoming. Today, the video surfaced online. So while some of the points below still pertain, others are probably moot. 


Much has been made of the innovative uses to which the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) has put social media, but the would-be caliphate is also trying out some interesting new approaches to governance. Specifically, it is pioneering an interesting experiment with an anonymous head of state.

Certainly, there have been instances in history in which obscure people were catapulted into political leadership positions, and I would not be surprised to learn there is an earlier parallel to this concept of which I am unaware. The history of geopolitics is long, and my knowledge of it is nothing to brag about. I look forward to hearing from you on Twitter about precedents (you know who you are).

But as someone who is not a historian, the rise of Abu Bakr Baghdadi to the self-appointed role of "caliph" calls to mind nothing more vividly than the novel 1984, in which much of the world is led by Big Brother, the subject of a cult of personality who may not actually exist as a person.

The real identity of Baghdadi has been the subject of much speculation and reports of varying reliability, without a truly definitive picture emerging, although an extremely thin biography has been circulating in IS social media circles since his self-anointment. Baghdadi has never released a video, and while there have been sporadic reports of him showing up in battle and spending time with his peers in prison, it's decidedly unclear how many members of the IS have ever even laid eyes on him.

While Baghdadi is probably a real person, he is also in many ways an empty suit, a generic jihadi archetype onto whom IS adherents can project their hopes and fears. Most IS policy announcements, up to and including the declaration of the caliphate, come from his spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. Baghdadi himself issued an audio-only speech after the proclamation of the "caliphate" which could have easily been written by a random jihadi-cliche generator.

The question now is whether this will change, or whether he will continue to lurk in the shadows, exercising leadership by Rorschach test. He allegedly surfaced in Mosul within the last day or so to meet his adoring public, but also allegedly, all cell service was cut off in order to protect knowledge of his whereabouts. It will be interesting to see if any photos show up in the aftermath. You know people can take photos while the cell service is down and upload them later, right IS propagandists?

Baghdadi stands in stark contrast to Osama bin Laden, whose personality loomed large and who was well-known to the world even before he was well-known as the leader of a terrorist organization. Even Ayman al Zawahiri, for all his inadequacies as an inspirational leader, is a known quantity with an extensive public record.

For an organization ideologically opposed to innovation, the IS sure isn't afraid to experiment with some weird ideas. IS may well be aiming to increase Baghdadi's visibility over the weeks and months to come, but the high level of secrecy that surrounds him has no doubt contributed to the lackluster response to the "caliphate" from groups outside IS's geographical domains thus far. Was IS consciously gambling that people would throw their support behind an archetype rather than an individual? Or was this a less-calculated gambit, yet another sign of short-sighted hubris?

Will Baghdadi attempt to "rule" as a generic cutout, a jihadi Big Brother whose real presence is obscured and outweighed by his legend? Once again, IS is wading into risky and untested waters. Whatever else you can say about the organization formerly known as ISIS, it is rarely boring.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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