A DARING operation on October 26, 2019 by elite American commandoes assassinated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the infamous leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in the northwestern Syrian village of Barisha. While hailed as a victory for the western nations engaging in the long-term war against terrorism, a question remains: will this be the final blow that destroys ISIS for good?
Operation Kayla Mueller
According to the Washington Post at approximately 11 p.m. on October 26, 2019 an American task force embarked on a mission to kill the longtime leader and figurehead of ISIS. According to the operation’s commander General Frank McKenzie, the assigned task force was made up of aerial drones, fighter jets, robots, 100 elite American special operators, 8 helicopters, and military working dogs. The United States’ hunt for al-Baghdadi has lasted for almost a decade. American officials had been aware of al-Baghdadi’s location since June thanks to a spy inside ISIS working for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Departing from an airbase in Iraq, the American task force flew through Russian and Syrian controlled airspace to the remote village of Barisha approximately 5 km from the Syrian-Turkish border. Landing near the target building, the Americans disembarked from their helicopters, initially surrounding the compound while calling for its occupants to come out and surrender peacefully. After this order was ignored the American special operations team opened fire, reportedly killing 4 men and 1 woman. U.S. troops used explosives to blow holes in the structure’s walls to avoid booby-trapped entrances as they proceeded to search the compound for al-Baghdadi.
Once inside, American troops quickly cornered al-Baghdadi and pursued him with a military working dog, named Conan, into an underground tunnel below the building. Realizing he had no realistic options for escape, al-Baghdadi detonated an explosive suicide belt, killing himself along with his two children.
To prevent the compound from becoming a shrine for followers of al-Baghdadi or ISIS sympathizers, American forces demolished the compound with a series of airstrikes. General McKenzie claimed that during the entire operation, 6 ISIS members were killed along with 2 of al-Baghdadi’s children while only 2 Americans were lightly injured.
The invisible Sheikh
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is often compared to Osama bin Laden of al Qaeda. But in truth, these two leaders were radically different in almost every way. Unlike bin Laden, information about al-Baghdadi’s life before and during his time leading ISIS is hard to come by. Details about his life are so scarce that he earned the monikers of “The Ghost” and “The Invisible Sheikh*”. While bin Laden was known for embracing the public light, Baghdadi shunned attention even before he found himself at the head of an international terrorist organization. According to Ahmed al-Dabash of the Islamic Army of Iraq, an insurgent group that fought against coalition forces during the Iraq War, Baghdadi was a quiet loner. “I was with Baghdadi at the Islamic University. We studied the same course, but he wasn’t a friend. He was quiet and retiring. He spent time alone**.” Despite this, he would find himself leading one of the most sophisticated terror organizations in but a few years.
Al-Baghdadi was involved with several insurgent groups during the Iraq War, but maintained a low profile. 2006 is when Al-Baghdadi’s rise to power began with a small militant group called Jamaat Ansar al-Sunnah that grew as it absorbed numerous other insurgent groups in Iraq. This amalgamation soon began to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) but was also viewed synonymous with al-Qaeda’s satellite in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi found himself on the ISI’s Sharia council and after the death of the ISI leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in April 2010, he was designated as the leader of ISI. Al-Baghdadi took a far more active role in the group’s activities, directing attacks on Shia mosques and Iraqi government targets. The most notorious was the December 22, 2011 bomb attacks that killed over 60. This attack occurred just days after the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq.***
The chaotic Syrian Civil War provided the ISI with an opportunity to expand in 2013. Merging with major Islamist groups in Syria led to the ISI to rebranding itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or as they are better known today ISIS. Division over the goals and purpose of ISIS resulted in a power struggle that led to a split with al-Qaeda and the two clashing in open warfare. Unlike terrorist groups of the past, ISIS truly saw itself and acted like a government. Cities were administered, taxes were collected, and laws were enforced by Islamic State officials. ISIS even pioneered using social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to spread their message, raise funds, and even recruit fighters****.
At the height of its power, the Islamic State held an estimated 8 million people within its control and held large swaths of land in northern Iraq and eastern Syria Initial successful campaigns against the Iraqi military brought harsh retaliation from the United States and their Western allies*****. Thousands of troops deployed into Iraq and Syria and airstrikes began hitting ISIS targets around the clock. And as of October 2019, ISIS was confined to a handful of small villages in Iraq and Syria, reduced once again to a disorganized paramilitary force.
An end? Or a new beginning?
The impact of al-Baghdadi’s death on ISIS is currently unclear. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman and host of the Terrorist Therapist podcast said that killing the leaders of terror organizations has an immediate psychological impact on its members. “The killing of Baghdadi, not that long after the defeat of the caliphate, is a serious blow to the morale of ISIS/ISIL. It’s like the ‘father’ of the family has been killed.” Although she cautioned that this doesn’t eliminate ISIS as a threat, “some will react in a defeated, depressed way, and others will be reenergized with even greater hate towards the non-believers.”
Even though the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria might never regain its former glory, it still has a very realistic chance of maintaining a strong presence as a battle-hardened paramilitary force in the Middle East. The Iraqi government has reported that large amounts of weapons and munitions are still readily accessible on the black market. With recent social unrest in Iraq conditions seem perfect for a resurgence in extremist violence.
According to an official announcement by ISIS through its official media outlet the al-Furqan Foundation, the succession of power after al-Baghdadi’s demise would be led by a man by the name of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Information on al-Qurayshi is hard to find and any guesses regarding how he will approach leading ISIS remnants are completely baseless. But if the last few years of war in Syria and Iraq have taught us anything, it is that underestimating ISIS is ill-advised. ISIS has proven itself to be extremely flexible both in a tactical and strategic sense.
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According to a 2015 CIA report, approximately 30,000 foreigners joined ISIS, and this includes several thousand Europeans and Americans******. While many have been killed or captured, there are still an unknown number that have evaded authorities. Having large numbers of lone-wolf extremists poses a clear and present danger to global security. Locating these fighters is now a top priority for counter-terror officials.
***New York Times
******Central Intelligence Agency