Iraq Says It Just Killed ISIS’s Second-in-Command. Here’s Why That Might Not Matter.

Iraq Says It Just Killed ISIS’s Second-in-Command. Here’s Why That Might Not Matter.

Iraq Says It Just Killed ISIS’s Second-in-Command. Here’s Why That Might Not Matter.

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May 14 2015 11:23 AM

Iraq Says It Just Killed ISIS’s Second-in-Command. Here’s Why That Might Not Matter.

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A Kurdish man celebrates after an airstrike near the Iraq-Syria border on October 25, 2014.

Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The Iraqi government claimed on Wednesday that ISIS’s second-in-command, Abu Alaa al-Afari had been killed in an U.S.-led airstrike. The Guardian reported earlier this month that Afari was actually running the group’s operations since leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had himself been badly injured in an airstrike, though the Pentagon disputed that story. The U.S. hasn’t yet confirmed the latest news about Afari.

As I noted after previous reports of Baghdadi’s death last year, ISIS’s appeal is based less around the individual personality of its leader, who was a relative unknown until the summer of 2014 and rarely issues public proclamations, than other terrorist groups. But it was hard not to give him credit as something of an organizational genius after ISIS’s astonishing territorial gains. 

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Today, however, ISIS is reeling from a series of setbacks on the battlefield and its core organization in Iraq and Syria is reportedly fraying from within, short on funds and personnel. But at the same time, it also appears to be winning the contest with other jihadist groups for inspiring supporters globally. Some of its new international affiliates, like those in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, likely have little actual organizational connection to Baghdadi’s command structure. ISIS supporters in the West, like the gunmen who carried out an attack in Garland, Texas earlier this month are almost certainly acting without orders.

Given that the Islamic State is evolving into  less of a “state” or even a cohesive organization than an international terrorist brand that has relatively little to do with the personalities and accomplishments of those leading it, it seems likely that ISIS would remain a threat even if those leaders were taken off the battlefield.   

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.