It’s still not clear whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, was hit over the weekend by an airstrike in Iraq. But the uncertainty raises a question: What would the militant organization look like without its savvy, shadowy man in charge?
There are logical candidates to succeed him — Baghdadi has enough deputies, commanders and advisers to fill a flow chart — and ISIS has a clear, methodical process for choosing a replacement.
But analysts who have studied ISIS stress that they do not expect any change in the organization’s land-hungry, bloodthirsty plans when and if Baghdadi is killed or incapacitated.
In fact, because he will be replacing Baghdadi, who has military bona fides and has nurtured a cult of personality at the top of ISIS, the next leader may try to prove his mettle by being even more expansionist and ruthless.
“He needs to show that he’s capable of leading from Day 1,” said Laith Alkhouri, the director of Middle East and North Africa research for Flashpoint Intelligence, which studies and consults on global security.
The United States has not confirmed that Baghdadi, who has led ISIS since 2010, was wounded in any airstrike. The Iraqi defense and interior ministries both put out statements Sunday saying that he had been hit. But the analysts pointed out that the Iraqi government has a spotty record when it comes to reporting the deaths of militants, and they also raised the possibility that Iraq is trying to goad ISIS into proving Baghdadi is alive, perhaps providing hints to his whereabouts.
If Baghdadi were taken out, analysts say they believe it would take a week or two for ISIS to choose a successor.
That would fall to the Shura Council, a collection of eight to 11 people who advise the caliph, the title Baghdadi has given himself. The Shura Council focuses on security and battlefield operations and would want someone with strong military experience.
But the next leader would also need the approval of the Sharia Council, in charge of evaluating religious credentials — not just swearing allegiances but studying under the appropriate radical scholars. Baghdadi has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies.
“You have to be extremely devout, in the footsteps of Baghdadi,” Alkhouri said. “You have to have the religious and the military. You have to show how powerful you are on the battlefield, just as how powerful you are in an audio message.”
The hours and days after Baghdadi’s death would be critical, said Charlie Winter, a researcher for Quilliam, a research and policy organization in London that studies extremists organizations.
If the leaders of the organization couldn’t coalesce around a successor, it could complicate the advancement of ISIS, leaving it open to chaos and infighting among the groups within, which have differing goals and allegiances, he said.
Baghdadi is “the ideological glue to what is a highly decentralized movement,” Winter said. “Because he is this charismatic figure, this legitimate figure, knowledgeable in Islam and military tactics, his presence kind of keeps a lid on what could become a number of different groups within Islamic State fighting each other.”
For that reason, ISIS, which has demonstrated a command of social media and a flair for highly produced video, might not announce Baghdadi’s death until his successor is already in place.
Among the candidates mentioned by analysts is Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the top spokesman for ISIS, who is considered a right-hand man to Baghdadi and who stood up to Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al Qaeda, before al Qaeda cut ties to ISIS.
Adnani is believed to be in his mid-30s, which makes him younger than most of the Shura Council, and he is Syrian, while the council is dominated by Iraqis. ISIS began in Iraq before expanding to Syria in the chaos of the civil war there.
Other candidates are Abu Ahmad al-Alwani, the head of the ISIS military council, and Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former Iraqi intelligence officer who heads the security council, Alkhouri said.
The head of the Shura Council, Abu Arkan al-Ameri, could also be up for the job, as could Abu Suleiman al-Naser, a former ISIS war minister who almost never appears in public. He was rumored killed in 2011.
And the vast majority of the broader ISIS leadership is still unknown, so the next man in charge could be someone even the analysts have never heard of. But Winter said he expected the next leader to pick up where Baghdadi leaves off.
“That’s the kind of thing you have to earn over time,” he said. “But the ideology wouldn’t die with him.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.