This morning, President Trump announced that US special forces are believed to have killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in a raid in the city of Idlib in northern Syria. In the context of moves from the Trump Administration like the recent withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria and abandonment of the Kurds, our biggest allies in the fight against ISIS, the terrorist group has been enjoying a resurgence, with dozens if not hundreds of formerly detained fighters escaping and renewing attacks. (Trump briefly and almost begrudgingly credited the Kurds in a list of forces that contributed to Baghdadi’s eventual discovery and killing; interestingly, Russia ended up getting more enthusiastic credit than did the Kurds).
In this context, the death of Baghdadi will provide a significant counterblow and further symbolize the decline of ISIS, which has already lost its erstwhile caliphate in Syria and Iraq and with it much of its base for propaganda. Diehard ISIS loyalists will likely treat Baghdadi as a martyr: reports that he designated a suicide vest upon facing capture will only fuel this narrative, while Trump’s description of Baghdadi “whimpering and crying and screaming” and blowing up three innocent children with him are explicitly meant to counter any heroic image of the ISIS leader’s final moments. Regardless of how Baghdadi will be remembered in death, his removal and inability to post new messages to the ISIS rank and file (his last video message had been released in April) is a meaningful blow.
This is a big coup for President Trump, at least for the moment. Baghdadi had long sat atop the United States’ most wanted list, with a $25 million dollar bounty on his head. His death allows the Trump Administration to continue to push the narrative that it has “defeated ISIS” and is therefore justified in its moves to pull out of Syria and the Middle East, even if both of those things have proven to not actually be true. President Trump’s tone in announcing the death of Baghdadi today was very different than his reaction in 2012 when President Barack Obama announced the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden – at that time, Trump tweeted “Stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden. The Navy Seals killed Bin Laden.” There was little of that type of distinction made this morning. Instead, Trump at several times alluded to his own role in prioritizing the hunt for Baghdadi and other high-profile terrorist figures like Hamza bin Laden, the son of the al-Qaeda founder who was killed by US forces earlier this year. President Trump was clearly emboldened by this accomplishment this morning, taking potshots at the Kurds, America’s European allies, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Washington establishment and even American intelligence agency leaders in his remarks to reporters.
Finally, Baghdadi’s death removes from the Middle East and from the world a particularly dangerous and hate-filled man. As is his usual style, Trump took numerous personal shots at Baghdadi in this morning’s announcement, but for once they were completely merited. Bombast aside, even by the incredibly extreme standards of terrorist leaders, Baghdadi stood out by being particularly vile. Baghdadi was a hatemonger, a rapist, a murderer and an opportunist. Under his leadership, ISIS adopted a strategy and ethos predicated on glorifying sickening violence and hatred, directed in all directions: Westerners, religious minorities, and fellow Arab Muslims were all targeted. The group harnessed the power of social media to spread its ideology of hatred and carnage through slickly-produced videos of beheadings and other wanton acts of violence and encouraged many attacks by sympathizers and copycats around the world. Closer to the group’s home base in Iraq and Syria, nearly defenseless minorities like the Yazidis often bore the brunt of ISIS attacks, suffering not only widespread, brutal death but also rampant sexual slavery. Baghdadi himself was reportedly a sexual predator, personally keeping and assaulting captured women and girls, both Western and Yazidi, as sex slaves.
Before emerging as the monster atop ISIS, Baghdadi was reportedly known as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai, indicating his birthplace in or near the city of Samarra in Iraq. He was an Iraqi cleric who seems to have earned a Ph.D. in Islamic studies. As late as 2004, when he was arrested while visiting a suspect wanted by US forces, he was still identified by his old name and worked, according to various sources, as a quiet and unremarkable religious leader and/or as an administrative assistant (secretary) according to his arrest records. He was released from custody later that year, deemed to not be a significant threat.
Sometime after that, he adopted the names Abu Bakr (named after the first caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad) and al-Baghdadi, indicating that he was from the Iraqi capital, moves seemingly designed to increase his own prestige. After joining the Islamic State of Iraq, which at the time was an affiliate of al-Qaeda, Baghdadi inherited leadership of the group in 2010 after its previous leader was killed. It was under Baghdadi that the group split with al-Qaeda (ISI’s indiscriminate violence was deemed counterproductive to al-Qaeda’s goals), established a strategy of creating a territorial base (a caliphate) in Iraq and Syria, and rebranded as ISIS.
The reclusive leader made his first and possibly only recorded public appearance in 2014, addressing a crowd from a balcony in the Iraqi city Mosul for Friday prayers and officially declaring the ISIS caliphate while wearing the traditional robes of a caliph but also seemingly sporting an expensive luxury watch (ISIS supporters later refuted the latter claim). Since that appearance, Baghdadi operated mostly from the shadows, occasionally releasing audio or video messages to his followers. His last known appearance before last night’s raid was a video released in April of this year, his first in five years. In it, he praised ISIS affiliates for an Easter church bombing in Sri Lanka that killed 250 people. Baghdadi’s death does not signal the end of ISIS, but hopefully it has significantly weakened the group on both an organizational and an ideological level. And it has undoubtedly take off the field a man responsible for a violent campaign of unspeakable scope and cruelty.