The leadership of the Islamic State group has a “deep bench” and a replacement for deceased president Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could emerge within weeks, the top counter-terrorism specialist of the U.S. government said Wednesday.
Acting National Counter-Terrorism Center Manager Russ Travers did not predict which IS leader will take over after Baghdadi, cornered in a weekend U.S. military raid, killed himself in a Syria.
But he said the organization has a number of people who could take the lead with the ability to control around 14,000 fighters who have scattered across Syria and Iraq.
“There’s no question that the losses over the weekend were significant to ISIS,” Travers told the House Homeland Security Committee, referring to Baghdadi’s death as well to the killing of IS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir.
“At the same time, it’s a deep bench,” he said.
“The United States and the coalition overall has had tremendous success in eliminating leadership over the years in both Al-Qaeda and ISIS. And yet the bench tends to rise to the top.”
“My guess it that… somewhere between a couple of days and a couple of weeks, we will see a new leader of the (caliphate) announced.”
He indicated that a new leader might be able to build alliances with the rival extremist group Al-Qaeda founder, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“There will be eulogies. Those eulogies will come even from Al-Qaeda,” he predicted.
“I suspect al-Zawahiri will play elder statesman and issue his own.”
“We will see calls for attacks against Western interests. And then we will see requests for the branches and affiliates to swear allegiance to the new leader.”
Travers could not see that IS was able to register any major threats in the near term.
But any planned preparations for a major operation must proceed, hardly disrupted by Baghdadi’s passing, the highly discreet founder and spiritual guide of the party.
Travers said the organization, apart from the IS fighters in Syria and Iraq, has about twenty branches and allies around the world, numbering hundreds to thousands in its Afghanistan component, Islamic State-Khorasan.
“This tells us that the insurgency has a lot of options,” Travers said.