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What's Next For ISIS


So who will head ISIS now? The president announced the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a U.S. commando raid this past weekend, which has generated a lot of speculation about Baghdadi's successor. And now President Trump has weighed in on that. NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam is in studio this morning. Hi, Hannah.


MARTIN: OK. So first off, do we have any answers yet about a successor to Baghdadi?

ALLAM: Well, not from the group itself. ISIS hasn't even acknowledged the death of Baghdadi, much less said anything official yet about a successor. That's not unusual. Al-Qaida took a few days before confirming Osama bin Laden's death. But it's something to keep in mind because until there's an official designation, everything is speculation. That being said, of course a group like ISIS doesn't operate without a succession plan.

MARTIN: Right.

ALLAM: Any senior leader of a group of this profile instantly is one of the most high-value targets in the world. It's not a job you typically retire from. You get killed or captured. So of course ISIS has an internal list of potential heirs. But at this point, that's all it is - a bunch of names until they designate a successor.

MARTIN: OK. So speaking of names out there, or the names that aren't, President Trump tweeted, quote, "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's No. 1 replacement has been terminated by American troops." He didn't give a name or any other details. Do we know who the president was talking about there?

ALLAM: Yeah, we asked about this. And one U.S. official told us Trump was referring to Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. It's a - that's a senior ISIS spokesman and a close aide to Baghdadi. But U.S. officials already had said almost 24 hours before Trump's tweet that al-Muhajir had died, was killed in a raid soon after the raid that resulted in Baghdadi's death. And certainly, Muhajir was a contender, but other names have been floated as well. So to sort of boast that the U.S. had taken out the No. 1 replacement for Baghdadi might overstate the case.

MARTIN: OK, so let's talk about really the hierarchy of this group in general. I mean, how much does it matter who's at the top of ISIS?

ALLAM: It is important, and it sets the tone for the direction of the group going forward. Baghdadi oversaw ISIS in its bloody heyday, this mass mobilization of recruits, the sophisticated use of social media, and most importantly, the declaration of a caliphate - that extremist mini-state carved from parts of Iraq and Syria. And that idea, the caliphate idea, was the big draw for the extremists who came to join the group. And ISIS was clever enough to put the focus on that greater mission, that goal, rather than to make ISIS sort of a cult of personality around Baghdadi.

I spoke to Amarnath Amarasingam. He's a Canadian terrorism researcher who's interviewed several ISIS members. And he asked them the succession question, and here's the answer he got.

AMARNATH AMARASINGAM: Often, the answer was, you know, we're not really fighting for a person, right? We're not really fighting for an individual. We're fighting for a state. We're fighting for this caliphate project, and we're fighting for this kind of historical moment or this kind of historical state-building moment.

ALLAM: So, yes, ISIS is weakened. It lost its land and its leader within the space of a few months. It's now at a crossroads, and whoever comes next faces a big task. Can it rebuild those forces? Is it going to figure out relations with other jihadist groups, especially al-Qaida? And how do they make sure that the group itself doesn't splinter? So a lot of big questions, but the one thing that analysts do agree on - don't call ISIS vanquished.

MARTIN: All right. NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam. Thanks, Hannah.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.