By Giorgio Cafiero
In northwestern Syria, a few miles south of the Turkish border, lies the impoverished village of Barisha. The majority of the village’s 7,000 inhabitants are displaced Syrians from elsewhere in the country who came to Barisha mainly due to its close proximity to Turkey and its relative calm compared to other parts of lawless Idlib. Yet over the weekend, Barisha experienced violent clashes amid a U.S.-led military raid, which lasted for four hours and resulted in the death of the so-called Islamic State’s (ISIS or IS) 48-year-old leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Soon after the caliph of ISIS died, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Something very big has just happened!” The following day, Trump delivered a 48-minute speech from the White House about the raid, saying that “capturing or killing al-Baghdadi has been the top national security priority of my administration.” Trump said the ISIS leader killed himself and three children with an explosives-laden vest. “He was a sick and depraved man and now he’s gone,” Trump said. “He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is a much safer place.”
Although the public has more to learn about the roles that various states and non-state actors played in this mission to kill or capture Baghdadi, Trump said, “I want to thank the nations of Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, and I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us.”
A senior aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Reuters: “Turkey was proud to help the United States, our NATO ally, bring a notorious terrorist to justice… We remember today Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s civilian victims and our military heroes, who lost their lives to protect the world from [ISIS] terrorists. Turkey, which has been a bulwark against terrorism, will continue to work closely with the United States and others to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. It is time to join forces and defeat all terrorist groups operating in the region without further delay.”
The Iraqi government released an official statement: “Following extensive work by a dedicated team for over a year, Iraq’s National Intelligence Service was able to accurately pinpoint the hideout of the terrorist Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in the Syrian province of Idlib… Subsequently, U.S. forces, in coordination with Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, carried out an operation which led to the elimination of the terrorist Al-Baghdadi.”
Russian officials disputed Trump’s claims that Moscow provided the U.S. with access to Russian-controlled Syrian airspace. Many Russian media outlets quickly dismissed Trump’s remarks about Baghdadi’s death as merely propaganda aimed at helping the U.S. president secure a second term next year. Yet the following day, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that al-Baghdadi’s death, if confirmed, would constitute a “serious contribution” by Trump.
In response to Trump’s tweet that “something very big” occurred, Iran’s Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi tweeted: “Not a big deal. You just killed your creature.”
An individual who played a major role in this mission was Mohammed Ali Sajet, one of al-Baghdadi’s collaborators who joined ISIS in 2015. Detained by Iraqi authorities near Baghdad roughly two months ago, Sajet gave essential information concerning al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts in Idlib and other details about those working with the erstwhile caliph of ISIS.
The Future of the Islamic State Post-Baghdadi
Although Baghdadi’s death is extremely symbolic, it is not clear how it will impact ISIS’s operations and structure in the future.
Given how many state and non-state actors were fighting ISIS and the extent to which many players sought to kill or capture Baghdadi, ISIS has likely been preparing for the caliph’s death for a considerable span of time. In August, Abdullah Qardash, an Iraqi Sunni with Turkmen roots who previously served as an officer in Saddam’s army, was Baghdadi’s first announced successor. Whether Qardash can command the loyalty of the group’s fighters—both in Iraq and Syria and in other countries from Burkina Faso to Afghanistan to Libya to Yemen—remains to be seen.
Some experts doubt that Qardash could fill his predecessor’s shoes given the extent to which al-Baghdadi previously appeared invincible and commanded high-levels of loyalty while enjoying a true cult of personality. Indeed, al-Baghdadi was a unique figure within the global community of Salafist-jihadist figures. His religious education and charisma coupled with the years he spent in Iraq’s Sunni-insurgency during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the ISIS leader’s famous announcement declaring the birth of a 21st century caliphate encompassing swathes of Syrian and Iraqi land equivalent in size to Great Britain provided al-Baghdadi with a unique status.
Despite al-Baghdadi’s death and the challenges that the succession process represents to ISIS, the cyber caliphate has become a franchise which will continue even if both the physical caliphate existing and Baghdadi are toast. The spirit and ideology of ISIS remain. Moreover, the existing ecosystem in Iraq and Syria, which created opportunities for the extremist group to initially rise, will continue providing ISIS with opportunities to re-emerge in both countries. Just like those who back in 2011 predicted that Osama bin Laden’s death would spell the defeat of al-Qaeda were wrong, the idea that al-Baghdadi’s death will mark the demise of ISIS is naïve. ISIS, as an eschatological group with many supporters worldwide, will outlive al-Baghdadi.
America’s Domestic Politics
Regardless of how the caliph’s death impacts ISIS’s operations and the movement of its fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq, the outcome of this military raid in Barisha will play out favorably for Trump within the context of America’s domestic politics, even though reports have emerged that al-Baghdadi’s death “happened largely in spite of President Trump’s actions, not because of them, according to military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials.”
Trump-the-candidate vowed in 2015/2016 that his administration would defeat ISIS. Having spent much of his time in office taking credit for having been in the Oval Office during the physical caliphate’s collapse, the death of al-Baghdadi will strengthen Trump’s narratives about the fight against ISIS unless the group achieves major victories amid a campaign of resurgence between now and November 2020. Regardless, throughout the upcoming 12 months, Trump will be on the campaign trail emphasizing that under his watch the leader of ISIS was taken out.
The death of al-Baghdadi will probably distract from the bipartisan criticism that Trump has received for his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from an area within northern Syria earlier this month—a move that led many in Washington and capitals worldwide to accuse the American president of abandoning U.S. allies. That the U.S. purportedly worked with Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to make this military raid successful will help Trump counter criticism that he has been incompetent when it comes to leading U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Doubtless, as “Ukrainegate” and incessant talk about impeachment developments consume much of the national media’s attention, al-Baghdadi’s death will give Trump at least some reprieve. But whether millions of destitute men, women, and children in northwestern Syria can be much more optimistic about their futures because al-Baghdadi is no longer alive is debatable.