(Bloomberg) -- The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi solidifies the transformation of the world’s most feared terrorist organization into a more conventional threat -- an extremist ideological movement rather than a state-like entity.

Islamic State had already become a more scattered movement before Baghdadi’s death during a raid by U.S. special forces soldiers. It had lost most of the land it once held in Iraq and Syria as a result of a multi-year U.S.-led campaign. It soldiers were locked up in jails, watched by Kurdish guards.

But while Baghdadi’s guidance had allowed Islamic State to maintain a sense of central command -- and his claims to a God-given right to rule will make it difficult to replace him -- it’s premature to say Islamic State is a spent force. That’s especially true in other parts of the world where it has continued to carry out attacks.

“The successor will be someone suited to their current needs: a military leader with a jihadist pedigree who can signal a strong transition,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor at Queens University and fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.

Baghdadi’s death could become a rallying cry for his supporters to show the U.S. and others that it remains a force to be reckoned with. The question is whether there is capacity still for large-scale reprisals.

“We may see a small uptick in attacks, but that is to be expected and should not be confused with strength,” Amarasingam said. “We may see just as many supporters who basically fade away after his death and move on with their lives.”

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According to Islamic State ideology, the leader of Islamic State should meet several criteria: among them that he should be able to rule over physical territory and claim descent from the tribe of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. The first has largely ceased to be the case, while the second makes it possible that Baghdadi could be replaced by a tactical commander rather than a caliph, or leader of the Islamic world, which Baghdadi claimed to be.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who led the fight against Islamic State on the ground in Syria, said on Twitter on Sunday that a joint operation with the U.S. had also targeted Islamic State’s spokesman Abul Hassan Al Muhajir near Jarablus in north western Syria. It did not give further detail. Abul Hassan would be one potential successor for Baghdadi.

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Whoever that person is, he’ll be issuing statements to a loose network of followers while on the run and in hiding. That’s a far cry from Baghdadi’s heyday, when his proclamations were governance edicts for conquered territory and the group had a self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa, Syria.

But Western intelligence officials note that the group has since late 2017 already devolved more responsibility to local offshoots which had previously been managed centrally. That’s empowered affiliates outside the Middle East, particularly in weakened states in north and central Africa, as well as lone-wolf attackers who have pledged allegiance to the group as they carried out assaults elsewhere, including in Europe, Asia and the U.S.

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“The underlying geopolitical conditions that allowed ISIS to emerge in the first place will remain for the foreseeable future, which Baghdadi’s followers will be able to exploit to stage a comeback,” said Kamran Bokhari, founding director of the Center for Global Policy in Washington. “So, it is a race against time.”

As an August attack in Afghanistan that killed more than 60 people underscored, Islamic State affiliates can carry out deadly strikes, gain support and establish footholds from Sri Lanka to Nigeria. Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counter terrorism, said at the time of the Afghan attack that even without the so-called caliphate, “the ISIS brand lives on around the world.”

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The United Nations warned in a July report that the risk of attacks from Islamic State “remains high.” Like al-Qaeda, which came under pressure from the U.S. following the 2001 terror attacks, Islamic State has adjusted its strategies for fundraising, striking and tapping the Internet and social media.

One key goal for the U.S. after the Baghdadi killing will be to use the material obtained from his compound to gain fresh intelligence on the inner workings of the group so Washington can carry out further strikes, Bokhari said.

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Other questions remain about the group’s future, especially after President Donald Trump pulled U.S. troops out of the way in Syria and allowed a Turkish offensive against Kurdish militants. Kurds made up the front-line force in the battles against Islamic State when it still controlled territory on the ground.

Most important, it’s unclear what will happen to thousands of Islamic State detainees once held by the Kurds, and whether enough of them could escape or be freed to constitute a revived threat amid the chaos of Syria’s long civil war.

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“It would be foolhardy and premature to pen the obituary of ISIS. The organization is still resilient,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

“It has thousands of fighters in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and beyond. It has already morphed into a lethal insurgency,” he said. “It carries out scores of attacks in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. It has become decentralized. Regional lieutenants are in charge of their own fiefdoms.”

Much depends on who comes next.

“Al-Baghdadi got old and slow-- and found his demise,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington. “ISIS, like the mafias that they closely resemble, will find a replacement. The successor may be worse than Baghdadi.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Samer Khalil Al-Atrush in Cairo at skhalilalatr@bloomberg.net;Glen Carey in Washington at gcarey8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, ;Benjamin Harvey at bharvey11@bloomberg.net, Rosalind Mathieson

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