In June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was proclaimed caliph of the so-called Islamic State, an al-Qaeda splinter faction that now controls vast swathes of Syria and Iraq and has affiliate branches as far away as Libya. But in recent weeks, reports have claimed that Baghdadi is severely injured and that the Islamic State is looking for a successor.
In April 2015, Martin Chulov, a Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote that “a source in Iraq with connections to the terror group” had revealed to him that Baghdadi had been badly wounded in a March 18 airstrike in al-Baaj near Mosul in Iraq. U.S. sources confirmed that the airstrike took place, although they did not link it to Baghdadi. In early May, Chulov wrote a follow-up report saying that “three sources close to [the Islamic State] have confirmed that Baghdadi’s wounds could mean he will never again lead the organisation.”
Looking for a New Caliph?
Meanwhile, Newsweek quoted Hisham al-Hashemi, an advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Defense who has emerged as the go-to-guy on Islamic State matters for much of the Western media, as saying that Baghdadi had been replaced by a deputy known as Abu Alaa al-Afari and that he will be the new caliph if Baghdadi dies. Hashemi—who says he is privy to captured Islamic State documents provided to him by Iraq’s government and claims to have known Baghdadi in the 1990s before he became a jihadi—was also a source for Chulov’s original report on the March 18 airstrike. Hashemi was again quoted by Chulov in the May report, repeating his claim that Afari stands poised to succeed Baghdadi.
In a recent report for the online journal The Daily Beast, Jamie Dettmer wrote that “jihadi defectors” had told opposition activists (who told him) that Baghdadi has been moved from Iraq to Raqqa in Syria and that his wounds are severe. He was said to suffer from “spine damage” and a paralyzed left leg, although he remained “mentally alert and able to issue orders.” According to Dettmer’s sources, the Islamic State’s Shura Council—a top advisory body—is getting ready to elect a deputy to rule in Baghdadi’s absence. Dettmer claimed that two Iraqis and one Syrian are the top candidates, though he did not name them.
Speculation continues. A report from CNN’s Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister has proposed four names as potential successors of Baghdadi:
- Abu Alaa al-Afari
- Abu Mohammed al-Adnani
- Abu Ali al-Anbari
- Tariq al-Harzi
These are all known Islamic State leaders, but the problem is that none of them seem to fulfill the agreed-upon conditions for becoming a caliph. A majority of the world’s Sunni Islamic scholars hold that a legitimate caliph must hail from the Quraish, the ancient Arab tribe to which the Prophet Mohammed belonged.
Indeed, Quraishi descent is one of the seven conditions of being a caliph listed by the Abbasid-era Islamic scholar Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi in his classic treatise al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya wal-Wilayat al-Diniyya. (It exists in English as The Ordinances of Government, translated by Asadullah Yate.) While Mawardi acknowledges that there has been some dissent on this point, he forcefully concludes that a caliph cannot be chosen to lead the Muslims unless he is “of the family of the Quraish.” Some have an ever narrower definition, saying the caliph must be a Hashemite—that is, a descendant of the prophet’s subclan within the Quraish, consisting of the offspring of his great-grandfather Hashim bin Abdul-Manaf. The Palestinian journalist and specialist in Islamist movements Wael Essam suggests that this is the understanding held by the Islamic State’s in-house scholars.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—whose real name is Ibrahim Awad al-Badri—fulfills these conditions since his tribe, the Albu Badri of Samarra, are Quraishis who claim descent from the prophet’s grandson Hussein. Apart from the epithet “al-Baghdadi,” which signifies a connection to Baghdad, he is often referred to by his supporters as “al-Hashemi” (a Hashemite), “al-Qurashi” (a member of the Quraish), and “al-Husseini” (a descendant of Hussein, the prophet’s grandson). The group has often stressed this genealogy, and when Baghdadi was declared caliph on June 29, 2014, the Islamic State spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani specifically mentioned his descent from the prophet as one of the qualities making him worthy of the office.
However, none of the men named as potential successors to Baghdadi have ever been publicly identified as having Quraishi heritage. Abu Alaa al-Afari is—as his name implies—from Tal Afar, west of Mosul in Iraq. This is a Turkmen city and Afari does not seem to be an Arab at all. Abu Ali al-Anbari is also Turkmen. Adnani, the Islamic State spokesperson, is a Syrian from the city of Binnish in the Idlib Governorate and is not known to have any familial ties to the prophet. Finally, Harzi is a Tunisian.
While it is possible that one of these men can demonstrate the proper genealogy—CNN mentions in passing that Afari is trying to “repaint his family history to claim lineage to the Prophet Mohammed”—they have not done so previously, at least not publicly.
On the other hand, there are high-ranking Islamic State members who have their family credentials in order. When Baghdadi was appointed emir of the group—then called the Islamic State of Iraq—in May 2010, the Shura Council also named Abu Abdullah al-Hassani al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi as his deputy. In this context, “al-Hassani” signifies that he is a descendent of Hassan, another grandson of the prophet. Little has been heard of Abu Abdullah since then, although Adnani indicated in an August 2011 statement that he was still alive at that time. According to Essam, Abu Abdullah currently holds a seat on the Shura Council as one of several deputies to the caliph. He is thus a potential successor to the caliphate whose family history would run up against no objections on religious grounds. The Islamic State leadership surely contains others like him.
Is It All Hot Air Again?
All the speculation about who will lead the Islamic State, and whether Baghdadi is injured at all, takes place in an information vacuum where contradictory rumors fill the void. Chulov and Dettmer’s sources may very well be correct. Chulov recently wrote on Twitter that his sources tell him that Afari held a Friday sermon in Mosul, accompanied by an Islamic State media team, which if true, suggests that an announcement of some sort is in the works. On May 13, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense claimed that Afari had been killed in a U.S. airstrike near Tal Afar. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees operations in Iraq, responded that it had “no information to corroborate these claims.” The CENTCOM statement referred to Afari as the Islamic State’s “second-in-command.”
Still, there is precious little evidence, and plenty of reasons to remain cautious. Baghdadi has been reported to be injured several times before in 2014, including in July, November, November again, and December. In January 2015, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the Saudi-owned daily al-Hayat that Baghdadi had been near death but “miraculously” survived his injuries. In February, Baghdadi was again said to have been at or near the location of an airstrike. At every turn, enemies of Baghdadi seek to feed the rumors, presumably hoping to draw him out of hiding or to spread uncertainty in Islamic State ranks, where communication between leaders and units has been made difficult by U.S. surveillance and airstrikes.
The ongoing claims about the March 18 airstrike in al-Baaj are the most detailed of any so far. But they remain unconfirmed, and the U.S. government has appeared unpersuaded. A Pentagon spokesman told The Guardian in April that the U.S. military has “nothing to confirm this report” and this has been the line ever since. “We have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi” who was hurt in the March 18 airstrike, the Pentagon’s Colonel Steve Warren told The Daily Beast and later repeated to CNN. Another U.S. official, speaking anonymously to CNN, said that there is "no information" that could put Baghdadi in al-Baaj on March 18. To the contrary, he said U.S. intelligence indicates that Baghdadi is still "a player" who is "absolutely participating" in the Islamic State’s day-to-day leadership.
Chances are, therefore, that no one will succeed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at all—not until someone actually kills him.
UPDATE: Just as this post went online on May 14, 2015, the Islamic State relelased a half-hour audio recording of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seemingly disproving the reports that he has been incapacitated by his injuries.