Al-Baghdadi's death deals ISIS Yemen branch a blow

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden


A picture taken October 28th shows a vehicle wreck amid the rubble at the site of a US special forces raid on ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's hideout in the Syrian village of Barisha in Idlib province. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

The death of "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his sudden replacement with a little-known figure is likely to further weaken the group's Yemen branch, experts and analysts said.

Al-Baghdadi blew himself up in an underground tunnel on October 27th, along with two children who appeared to be under the age of 12, during a US special forces raid on his hideout in Syria's Idlib province.

But even before al-Baghdadi's death, "ISIS in Yemen was in a debilitated state, especially in the wake of confrontations with al-Qaeda", Abaad Centre for Strategic Studies head Abdul Salam Mohammed told Al-Mashareq.

It now seems clear that al-Baghdadi's demise will accelerate the group's disintegration, Mohammed said.

Vicious fight with al-Qaeda

The ISIS branch in Yemen has several distinct characteristics, Mohammed said.

It was established by middle-tier leaders who had previously belonged to al-Qaeda, he said, noting that many of these leaders later rejoined al-Qaeda and fought against ISIS.

There has been vicious fighting between the rival extremist groups, particularly in al-Bayda's al-Qayfa district, in which al-Qaeda has gained the upper hand.

And the brutal execution in January of four Yemeni youths in the same area drew public outrage and eroded any support ISIS may once have had.

In addition to being overshadowed and attacked by al-Qaeda, which has a deeper support base in the Arabian Peninsula, "the ISIS leader's killing closed the door on [the Yemen branch's] access to support and funding", he said.

Uncertainty about the new leadership and funding shortages are expected to further weaken ISIS, which was never really able to establish itself successfully in Yemen and has therefore been unable to expand, he said.

This can be attributed to "the attrition suffered by ISIS at the outset of its establishment in Yemen, before it could achieve anything on the ground, as a result of it entering into confrontations with al-Qaeda", Mohammed said.

"ISIS is finished in the region and will soon be finished in Yemen," he predicted.

Further weakening of ISIS

Al-Baghdadi's death and the turmoil and infighting that the naming of a successor is sure to trigger "will frustrate leaders who seek to activate the group’s role, especially in Yemen", said armed group researcher Nabil al-Bakiri.

Many extremist groups cease to function upon the death of the founding leader, who typically holds all of the group’s power and plans, he told Al-Mashareq, "even though these groups pretend to have organisational structure".

In most extremist groups, "allegiance is usually to the founding leader, but after his death, internal conflicts and divisions start to appear among the leaders", political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq.

"This will be the fate of the ISIS branch in Yemen," he said.

"The announcement of al-Baghdadi's successor will only lead to more divisions and alliances among the top-tier leaders in the group's branches, especially the Yemeni branch," Ahmed said.

The Yemeni branch of ISIS is "battling al-Qaeda for influence and does not have a popular incubator", he noted.

The military operation to take out al-Baghdadi "enhances the credibility of the fight against terrorism", Ahmed added.

It dealt a huge blow to the morale of ISIS leaders and elements, he said, "especially after the series of defeats the group has suffered in Iraq and Syria" and the subsequent defection of many of its fighters.

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