The emergence of the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has rekindled fears that a new figure has emerged capable of uniting Al-Qaeda’s different branches under a single commander. The emergence of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has ended a dry spell for Al-Qaeda that has lasted for three years, following the death of Osama Bin Laden.
The time and place of Baghdadi’s emergence raises questions about what this group is, who controls it and who was able to break into it. ISIS emerged suddenly in Syria, at a time when the collapse of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime seemed inevitable. The emergence of ISIS saved the Syrian regime by frightening the rest of the world with the specter of a terrorist regime replacing Assad, and by fighting against his other opponents.
The same scenario happened in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran, was on the verge of losing office because Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish leaders were unanimously opposed to seeing him remain in office. Suddenly, ISIS emerged. It seized Mosul, the second largest and most heavily guarded city in the country. And so Maliki was brought back to the forefront, insisting that he was the leader Iraq needed to face the Sunni terrorists.
Instead of ISIS fighting its obvious opponents Assad and Maliki, the group has mobilized its men against the Saudi–Iraqi border. It has also waged a battle on the borders between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Bin Laden is dead, but Baghdadi lives on. He acts as his predecessor acted and avoids what his predecessor avoided. Iran was the enemy in their religious propaganda, yet was secretly their de facto ally. It has been home for some Al-Qaeda cells since the Nineties, led by Egyptian fundamentalist Saif Al-Adel. After Al-Qaeda’s escape from Afghanistan, Iran became a refuge for many more cells. Bin Laden sent half his children and one of his wives there, and after his death they were handed over to Syria and then to Saudi Arabia. Many of Al-Qaeda’s Saudi and Arab leaders and soldiers are allegedly still in Iran. I do not recall any reports saying Al-Qaeda has ever targeted the Islamic Republic, despite the organization’s ideological hostility to it and incitement against Shi’ites.
Baghdadi is the new version of Bin Laden: a model for the religious failure in the Sunni community, which was unable to stop extremism and find a cultural alternative. A new war is looming on the horizon. Who knows how long and destructive it could be?