In a nationally televised address Sunday morning, Trump announced that al-Baghdadi killed himself in a suicide bombing after being cornered in a tunnel during the operation, ending the years-long search for the elusive ISIS leader.
READ MORE: Who was ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
Al-Baghdadi was instrumental in the revitalization of a united extremist group that came about after the 2007 withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
In the following years, the Islamic State rose to prominence as a movement so extreme and ultraviolent as to warrant denouncement from even al-Qaida.
While al-Baghdadi’s death has dealt a sizeable blow to the Islamic State, experts say it probably won’t do much to detract them from reaching their goal — the building of a wide-reaching caliphate.
Here’s what to expect going forward.
How will his death affect the Islamic State?
According to Amarnath Amarasingam, a Queen’s University professor and expert on terrorism, the impact of al-Baghdadi’s death will depend on how engrossed he still was in the group’s day-to-day operations.
After the 2017 fall of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital city, the group steadily lost its foothold in Syria through consistent defeat at the hands of the Syrian Kurdish fighters and the U.S.-led coalition. In March, the group was defeated in its last stronghold, Baghouz.
“In his last video, he made a point to show that he was overseeing closely all the ISIS provinces,” Amarasingam wrote in an email to Global News. “This was largely a propaganda move to show that he was still in control following the loss of territory.”
A video posted in April showed al-Baghdadi in his first public appearance in almost five years. Prior to that, the Associated Press reported he had only made one other public appearance during a sermon at an Iraq mosque in 2014.
Al-Baghdadi himself was moving on a constant basis and was infamous for keeping both his public and electronic communications extremely limited.
Carleton University professor and national security expert Stephanie Carvin said that the death of al-Baghdadi would be felt both organizationally and psychologically, but the group has historically recovered from losing its leaders before — even coming back stronger under new leadership.
“We’ve been at this now for basically two decades, and you’ll see what happens when you remove leaders, and a lot of times there’s actually a lot of instability,” said Carvin.
“But I think that… we can look at this and be like, they recovered from losing Zarqawi, who really was kind of the founding member, and were able to go actually even bigger than he did.”
Al-Baghdadi never publicly chose a successor to replace him in the event that he and other high-ranking members of the caliphate would be killed.
“They’re going to replace Baghdadi, right. This wasn’t some kind of Baghdadi cult,” said Carvin. “The Islamic State has its own ideology. It has existed now for about two decades and they’re determined to build a caliphate of some sort. So they will definitely come up again.”
The succession process
According to both Amarasingam and Carvin, his successor will be picked by the Islamic State’s governing body — the Shura Council — and it will most likely happen soon.
“ISIS will have to focus on a succession plan, and will have to ramp up propaganda efforts to help supporters navigate through this loss,” said Amarasingam.
The status and strength of the Islamic State has been hard to pinpoint. Sporadic fighting and bombings still occur in the Syrian countryside, but large scale co-ordinated efforts from the group have been few and far between following the caliphate’s eviction from Raqqa, an indication of the group’s fragmentation across the Middle East.
The Shura Council is now left with a decision that could potentially determine the future of ISIS.
“Usually a lot of these things are consensus. They have a council, that comes together and they kind of work it out,” said Carvin.
“It’s not dissimilar to how al-Qaida picks their successor. There are certain leaders in the movement who will I guess be considered, and then there has to be some kind of consensus around that person.”
According to Amarasingam, the council will consider whether they want to stay in line with the current caliphate structure of choosing a leader from the Quraysh tribe, such as al-Baghdadi, or pick a strategic individual who can advance operations on the frontlines.
“The main name being floated around is Abu Abdullah al-Hassani a.k.a. Haji Abdallah, a high-ranking ISIS official,” said Amarasingam. “But, who knows.”
— With files from the Associated Press