by Oreoluwa D. Babatope.

ISIS gets new leader, Qardash ‘The Professor’[1]

Policy Areas: Social Change

Hours after the confirmed death of ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terror group has a new leader, who has reportedly been chosen as an heir by al-Baghdadi since August. The new leader, Abdullah Qardash – nicknamed ‘The Professor’ is known as a cruel but popular figure among ISIS rank-and-file.  He is understood to have already taken over a number of duties from al-Baghdadi prior to his demise on Sunday when he reportedly detonated a suicide vest. Baghdadi was described as a figurehead, as he was not involved in operations or day-to-day affairs. “All Baghdadi did was say yes or no.”

Understanding Human Behaviour: A New Approach to Combating Terrorism?

The relief accompanying the news of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death as a result of a US Special Forces operation in Syria’s Idlib province on Sunday, seems to have been short-lived as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has named its new leader. According to reports,[2] prior to the erstwhile ISIS leader’s death, Abdullah Qardash, former Iraqi military officer, had been groomed to take over affairs from Baghdadi. This is reminiscent of the succession of Ayman al-Zawahiri as the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group following the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden in a US special forces raid in Pakistan. Likewise, following the summary execution of Boko Haram leader and founder, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009; the terrorist group has been led by Abubakar Shekau. Based on the above, it appears that the death of the leaders of these organizations and other terrorists’ groups alike do not necessarily lead to the end of their activities.

Arguably, targeting the group’s leadership could reduce its functioning capability by eliminating its most highly skilled members, thereby forcing the group to divert valuable time and resources to protect its leaders. However, scholarly works on counter-terrorism efforts have shown that decapitation (killing or capture) tactics aimed at leaders of terrorist organizations are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.[3] Though an extreme take, it could be understood in light of the fact that the ISIS’ founder and two successors were killed before al-Baghdadi became its leader and vastly expanded the group’s sway in the Middle East and beyond.[4] According to Hassan Abu Hanieh, an expert on extremist groups, “For sure it is important, but we know from what we have seen from other organizations that getting rid of the leader does not get rid of the organization.”[5] Though it would demoralize some followers, al-Baghdadi’s death is also expected to enrage others who would seek to avenge them. The fervor with which these leaders are hunted may be based on the assumption that it is the leaders that bind the groups and not the ideologies, values and the violent nature of humans. Though, blind followership and loyalty are important tools in keeping such groups in cohesion and could sometimes lead to dependency on leaders, the impact of ideologies which justify their existence cannot be denied. This could be partly attributed to the reason counterterrorism polices and strategies have not always been successful.

To figure out how to put an end to terrorism, “it is worth sorting through what’s changed, which precedents can inform future responses, and what past failures can teach for the way forward.”[6] The position here is not to stop the focus on decapitation tactics aimed at the leaders: the argument is that a one-sided focus could lead to decline in the attention on other members of the groups who could sometimes have the motivation and autonomy to act. History has shown the intolerant and violent nature of humans, as well as the susceptibility to destroy those who do not agree with them. Coupled with religious fanaticism and political extremism, these factors have a way of unifying like-minded people, with the leaders adding a form of hierarchy to the somewhat informal organizational structure. If leadership decapitation cannot be solely relied on as a means to accelerate the demise of terrorist groups, it stands to reason that counterterrorism approaches should include means of tacking this menace from the root, which could be psychological or sociological approaches, or a hybrid of both.  Numerous theories have been developed, ranging from the psychology of terrorists and terrorism to the social approaches. Analysis from a former counter-terrorism analyst and researcher, Stamelos (2018),[7] reveals that a response-only approach is “woefully inefficient.” He advocates a psychological approach to understanding and defeating violence; a prevention-based approach. This is based on the assumptions that: the reasons people choose terrorism can be identified; psychological techniques can be developed to combat this choice; and such techniques can be deployed through a large-scale program to prevent terrorism. He believes that understanding human behavior and choice is the key to combating violence and terrorism. The question now remains whether it is practical for such fields to be studied and experimented upon. Though researches have conceded that terrorism is a very complicated social object to study,[8] it is nonetheless important to explore and understand underlying factors which could be interconnected. Such studies could possibly mitigate the risk of catastrophic attack by initiating the long overdue scientific study of terrorist mentalities.[9]

Terrorism begins in the minds of those who feel humiliated or perceive injustice. It begins with hate, the hate of the us versus the them. And these beginnings are rarely invisible” – Bill Bratton, Former NYPD Commissioner.


[1] This article is taken from Punch (Online) News. Retrieved from Date: 28/10/2019.

[2] Punch (Online) News (2019, October 27).  Breaking news: ISIS names new leader as al-Baghdadi dies. Retrieved from

[3] Price B. (2012). Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism. Journal of International Security Vol. 36, No. 4 (Spring 2012), pp. 9-46. Retrieved from Date accessed: 29/10/2019.

[4] Hubbard B., Callimachi R. & Rubin A. (2019, October 27). Leader’s Death Will Damage ISIS, but Not Destroy It. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gilsinan K. (2016, April 2). How Should the World Respond to Terrorism? The Atlantic. Retrieved from Date accessed: 29/10/2019.

[7] Stamelos J. (2018, January 16). Unmasking Terror: The New Psychological Approach to Understanding and Defeating Extreme Violence. Medium. Retrieved from

[8] Arciszewski T., Verlhiac J., Concalves I.& Kruglanski A. (2009). From psychology of terrorists to psychology of terrorism. Revue Internationale De Psychologies Sociale 2009/3-4 pp. 5-34. Retrieved from Date: 29/102019/

[9] Victoroff J. (2005, February). The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches. The Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 49, No. 1 (Feb. 2005), pp. 3-42. Retrieved from