The releaseÂ Wednesday of files seized in the 2011 Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Ladenâs hideout has prompted renewed attention to the former al-Qaeda leader. Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in the raid six years ago, but his al-Qaeda legacy is still the subject of public debate and expert analysis, despite the emergence of an arguably more powerful rival group, the Islamic State.
Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been declared dead several times now, although theÂ group recently released an audio fileÂ meant to prove that he is still alive.Â But even if the reports of Baghdadiâs death turned out to beÂ true at some point,Â would it really matter as much as the killing ofÂ bin Laden did? Probably not.
Bin Laden may have been involved in the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11, but he subsequently spent the vast majority of his life as the worldâs most wanted terrorist in the role of a more symbolic figure and recruiter-in-chief. Bin Laden worked on a broad strategy for the group, mostly relying on his own public profile and status within the global jihadist movement to pressure associated groups into following his guidance.
In contrast, Baghdadi has made only few public remarks. Those comments may have galvanized the hard-core supporters but the groupâs real attraction to the many foreigners who joined the movementÂ were the slick propaganda videos or social media accounts of fighters.
TheÂ Islamic State has also prepared for the possible death of Baghdadi for years, researchers believe. âThe Islamic Stateâs organizational structure has been built to ensure that Baghdadiâs death would not deal a significant blow to the groupâs operations, with a relatively broad network of commanders and likely a succession structure in place with some depth,âÂ said Otso Iho,Â a senior analyst with IHS Janeâs Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
âThere is a reason why heÂ hasnât been featured that much in the groupâs propaganda â they are aware that if they put too much emphasis on one individual who can be killed, the entire organization could suffer as a result,â said Charlie Winter, a senior researcher with Londonâs International Center for the Study of Radicalization who specializes in the groupâs propaganda.
To understand why, look at the history of the Islamic State. Its forerunner, known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, was founded by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi more than a decade ago. As its name implies, it was linked with bin Laden.
By the time Baghdadi took the reins of what was left of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010,Â bin Laden was more of an ideological leaderÂ than an operational day-to-day manager, whose messagesÂ took weeks or months to reach their destinations for security reasons. When the U.S. killed bin Laden in 2011, it came as a huge setback for global jihadist movements who had looked up to him for advice. It also disrupted al-QaedaÂ which atÂ the time mostly consisted of various splinter groups that were more or less loosely connected.
âSometimes, the removal of a leader can causeÂ a substantial degradation of a group,â said Raffaello Pantucci, the director for International Security Studies at Britainâs Royal United Services Institute. The Taliban, for example,Â covered upÂ the death of their leader Mullah Omar for two years until 2015 out of fear that the group would break apart.
âBut in most cases, a leaderâs deathÂ only speeds upÂ the rise of even more radical successors,â said Pantucci. This was the case with the killing of bin Laden, which opened a path forÂ new leaders and the creation of new radical splinter groups no longer bound by his influence. That included Baghdadiâs group, which soon gained momentum in Iraq and Syria, then already embroiled in its own civil war.
Within two years of bin Ladenâs death, the Islamic State was carrying out a revitalized and arguably even-more-toxic strain of Islamist terrorism both in the Middle East and around the world. In addition to launching attacks in the West, it gained allegiance of other groups in countries like Libya and Nigeria.
The Islamic State was soon described by U.S. officials as being more dangerous than al-Qaeda. Yet despite being named caliph of an actual territory, Baghdadi, never reached bin Ladenâs status within the global jihadist movement, and is unlikely to ever do.
Baghdadiâs greatest achievement was the creation of physical territory he dubbed the Islamic State, but with that mostly gone, so goes his legacy. Bin Laden, on the other hand, will always be known as the man who took violent radical Islam and spread it across the world.