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Just how important is leadership to terrorist groups?

ISIS has a new leader – does it matter? Can society function if everyone is on the same level? Where would be without leaders?

ISIS has a new leader – does it matter?

Where would be without leaders? Can society function if everyone is on the same level? Is it really possible to have a 100% even playing field? I suppose there are some who would argue that we could create a completely equal society – I’d love to see whether that would actually work.

Leaders serve a purpose, even if it is not always clear and taking into consideration that some leaders are terrible at what they are supposed to do: i.e. lead. Luckily, there are examples of great men and women who rose to the occasion when we needed it most (think Winston Churchill in the UK in WWII although he was booted out of office before the war finally ended).

So what about terrorist groups: do they need leaders? The answer to that question is not so straightforward. There is no question that some terrorist head honchos have served as great and inspirational role models (think Usama bin Laden with Al Qaeda (AQ)). I would also put the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) Velupillai Prabhakaran and the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê’s (PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) Abdallah Ocalan in that category.

UBL, the real deal

Al Qaeda

An interesting dilemma arises when effective leaders die or are taken out. If the head guy is THAT important, the group suffers. Let’s look at AQ in the aftermath of UBL’s death at the hands of US Special Forces in Pakistan in 2011. While AQ is still a big threat in many countries there is little doubt that the succession of Ayman al Zawahiri as the organisation’s lead was a blow: Al Zawahiri is not bin Laden, whether we are talking charisma or planning capabilty.

In this light there has been a lot of debate in various circles (academic, policy, security intelligence) over what would happen to Islamic State (ISIS) after Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s death in a hole in Syria last October. Could his successor be as effective?

I guess we are about to find out.

ISIS new leader

We now know that the new leader of ISIS is Amir Muhammad Said Abdal Rahman al-Mawla. According to the US State Department a–Mawla was a religious scholar in ISIS who rose up through the ranks: CNN called him a ‘genocidal ideologue’ who ‘helped drive and justify the abduction, slaughter, and trafficking of the Yazidi religious minority in northwest Iraq.’

There is some talk that as an ethnic Turkmen al-Mawla may have neither the right nationality nor the religious gravitas to be the leader of ISIS (for a lot of jihadis the #1 must come from the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad) and hence he may be temporary.

‘A’ team? ‘B’ team? Whatever, probably not a photo he is proud of

”Unbroken and defiant around the world”

We’ll have to wait and see. It is important to point out that ‘terrorism’ does not require a ‘leader’ (Marc Sageman wrote ‘Leaderless Jihad‘ way back in 2008). Acts like 9/11 do need high level direction and planning: local ones do not. ISIS once exhorted its fanboys to carry out unsophisticated attacks with what they had on hand, a kinda Nike ‘Just Do It’ violence.

I also think that we spend far too much time worrying about terrorist organisational charts and reporting relationships. I am not convinced we need to do this to stop terrorism. Others will undoubtedly disagree with me.

The most important takeaway here is that ISIS is still a significant force, regardless of who is at the helm. As Brian Glyn Williams wrote in the Washington Post last Wednesday (January 28) “Despite defeats, the Islamic State remains unbroken and defiant around the world.”

Watch this space.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

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