The Oct. 26 killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a raid by a U.S. Joint Special Operations Forces Command task force is a significant victory against ISIS. It also shows that the United States does not need to have troops on the ground in order to deal with jihadist and other threats emanating from Syria. That the operation was conducted in collaboration with Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syrian Kurds and even the Syrian government shows that Washington can work with regional players to fight jihadism and manage the geosectarian war in Syria and the broader region. The Trump administration must continue to strike at ISIS before the transnational jihadist entity is able to regroup and deal with the broader conflict radiating out of Syria..
In a detailed Oct. 27 press briefing, U.S. President Donald J. Trump confirmed that a Joint Special Operations Forces Command strike group had eliminated the world’s most wanted terrorist; al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or Daesh). The team, ferried by a squadron of eight helicopters, conducted a two-hour raid on a facility where the ISIS leader was residing in the Barisha area of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province near the border with Turkey. According to Trump al-Baghdadi died “whimpering and crying and screaming” after trying to escape through a dead-end tunnel and detonating a suicide vest which killed three children as well. Trump acknowledged the role of Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syrian Kurds and even the Syrian regime in the success of the operation that led to the decapitation of ISIS.
Baghdadi’s Last Days
Perhaps the most significant tactical detail is that Baghdadi was found in Idlib – a province far from what used to be ISIS’ core turf in eastern Syria between Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor. It shows that he did not have too many options for a secure hideout. Idlib is home to Salafist-jihadist rivals of ISIS, especially al Qaeda-affiliated groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Shaam and Huras al-Din, and was thus not exactly a safe haven. It could very well be that the intelligence on the location of his compound was facilitated by elements from one of these jihadist entities.
Trump mentioned that the ISIS leader was in Idlib as part of his efforts to rebuild his group. After ISIS lost territory in eastern Syria, there were not a whole lot of places for al-Baghdadi to seek sanctuary. That he did not return to his native Iraq suggests that he did not feel safe there. After all, Mosul and other parts of Iraq’s western Sunni-majority areas are under the control of the forces of Iraq’s Iranian-backed, Shiite-dominated government and allied militias, rendering it hostile territory. Likewise, between regime-held areas, Kurdish-controlled regions, Shiite militias, and the Russian, Iranian, and growing Turkish military presence, there weren’t too many choices in Syria, either.
Idlib is the one province remaining in the hands of Salafist-jihadist militias where ISIS had a presence, though in pockets. Even though the province is dominated by groups who are enemies of ISIS, al-Baghdadi and his associates may have felt that it was the one area whose key players shared their ideology. They likely also miscalculated that it would be difficult for the United States to venture into a hotbed of jihadism. That he had his family with him shows that al-Baghdadi was not there just for temporary business; rather, it was a place where he could remain based until his movement was able to stage a comeback.
The ISIS Threat Moving Forward
Preparing well in advance in terms of contingency planning and leadership transitions is a standard operating procedure for ISIS, al Qaeda, and other major jihadist entities, because they know that their leaders are dead men walking. That said, this decapitation hit represents a temporary but significant jolt to the ISIS system, which will force it to go largely quiet for a while. Note that al-Baghdadi’s elimination comes not too long after the ISIS caliphate was dismantled and the group was already in a rebuilding phase.
Al-Baghdadi’s death renders these efforts to resurge even more difficult. ISIS has been forced to evaluate the extent to which it is organizationally compromised. The group will be working to seal the leaks in order to prevent further hits against its leadership, personnel, and assets. There is also a certain degree of demoralization within the ranks that will create hurdles for its resurgence. However, we have seen this beast reconstitute after its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and the simultaneous killing of his successors Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in 2010.
The United States needs to take advantage of the opportunity created by the ISIS leader’s death. The intelligence obtained from al-Baghdadi’s compound needs to be meticulously combed through and analyzed to gain fresh insights on the inner workings of the group so Washington can continue to make further strikes on the group. The terrorist/insurgent/governance tradecraft, institutionalization and ideology are still out there. More importantly, the underlying geopolitical conditions that allowed ISIS to emerge in the first place will remain for the foreseeable future. Al-Baghdadi’s followers will be able to exploit these circumstances to stage a comeback.
U.S. Strategy & Broader Regional Dynamics
In other words, it is a race against time. Al-Baghdadi’s killing has made one thing clear: The United States does not need troops on the ground to fight ISIS or even deal with other adversaries like Iran and Russia. The ISIS decapitation comes around the same time that Washington green-lighted Turkey’s desire to increase its military footprint in Syria, which in turn led to fighting between Turkey and Turkish-backed Sunni Arab militiamen on one side and Syrian Kurdish forces on the other.
The United States has no appetite to deploy greater military and financial resources to manage Syria, much less the region as a whole. The status quo of a few thousand troops backing Kurds will not cut it. There is a need for a new balance of power strategy, which involves getting the various stakeholders in Syria and the region to play the lead role while the United States. maintains overwatch. On the strategic level, the Trump administration appears to be moving in the right direction.
But as they say, the devil is in the details. The key is how to put the transition in motion so that Russia, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq and the various non-state actors can sort out the complicated regional melee. In a multi-player battlespace like this there is a huge risk of things going wrong with one too many moving parts. But that is the reality of the shattered Syrian-Iraqi landmass, where numerous actors have their respective stakes. While Washington continues to engage in tactical counterterrorism operations against ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, it must invest in the long-term strategic management of the region by working with, and in some cases containing, the aforementioned players.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is a Founding Director of the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Dr. Bokhari is also the coordinator for Central Asia studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of CGP, FSI, the U.S. Department of State or the University of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari.