The impact of al-Baghdadi’s death
President Trump this week hailed the killing of ISIS leader and founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. Special Forces raid in northwest Syria as the biggest-ever victory in the war on terror, even as American military leaders warned that the fight against the terrorist network remains unfinished. In a White House speech, Trump said that al-Baghdadi fled “whimpering, screaming, and crying” into an underground tunnel as the elite Delta Force raided his compound and that he “died like a dog.” Unable to escape, al-Baghdadi detonated an explosive vest that killed himself and three of his young children. “Osama bin Laden was very big,” Trump said. But “this is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country, a caliphate.”
The CIA and Special Forces were able to locate al-Baghdadi with help from a disaffected ISIS follower inside the terrorist leader’s compound. The informant, cultivated by Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) allied to the U.S. in northern Syria, was reported to be a Sunni Arab who turned against ISIS after it killed one of his relatives. His intimate knowledge of al-Baghdadi’s safe houses in Idlib province helped the CIA monitor the terrorist leader’s movements for five months. U.S. forces were able to quickly identify al-Baghdadi’s body using DNA samples taken from the terrorist leader’s underwear, which the informant stole from his compound.
The U.S. military had to rush the al-Baghdadi raid into action after Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from northwest Syria, military and intelligence officials told The New York Times. Trump told reporters he has no regrets about the decision to withdraw but added that he would keep a small number of troops in Syria “to secure the oil” seized in the war against ISIS. An estimated 14,000 to 18,000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria. “When you take out a leader like that, it’s going to have, I think, a major impact on the organization,” said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. “But we’ll see over time.”
What the editorials said
“Al-Baghdadi’s death is a victory for civilization over barbarity,” said USA Today. At its peak in 2014, al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq was controlled by fanatics who brutally enforced “his twisted interpretation of Islam,” killing thousands. Al-Baghdadi personally took part in rapes of those he considered nonbelievers, including captured American aid worker Kayla Mueller. In Europe, the U.S., and worldwide, ISIS launched or inspired terrorist attacks responsible for killing more than 1,200 people. “An evil man’s time has ended, and for that all Americans can take comfort.”
President Trump “took office vowing to crush ISIS,” said the New York Post, and he has delivered on that promise. ISIS has been routed from its territory, and al-Baghdadi’s death is a “decisive blow,” decapitating the terrorist network and yielding intelligence that will help smoke out its “scattered remnants.” Actually, American forces achieved their mission in spite of, not because of, this president, said the San Francisco Chronicle. Military and intelligence officials say the delicate operation was almost derailed by Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw troops from northwestern Syria. Success would also have been impossible “without the allies abandoned in that retreat,” or the CIA—which Trump has repeatedly disdained as part of a disloyal deep state.
What the columnists said
“Al-Baghdadi’s death could have been Trump’s finest hour,” said Max Boot in The Washington Post. But our reality TV star president never fails to turn even the most solemn occasions “into a ridiculous, risible spectacle.” Trump almost certainly invented the lurid details about al-Baghdadi whimpering and crying—the overhead surveillance feed from a drone didn’t include audio, and military officials monitoring the raid said they’d heard nothing. During his ghoulish touchdown dance, Trump said he’d notified Russia in advance but not congressional leaders, and barely mentioned the Kurds who made the raid possible. Trump “is utterly unfit to be commander in chief.”
Trump “is due a victory lap,” said Noah Rothman in CommentaryMagazine.com. “But only one.” He gets credit for giving the go-ahead for the mission, since he would have suffered serious political fallout if it had failed. Trump’s challenge now is not to repeat the mistake Obama made after Bin Laden’s death—downplaying the ongoing risk of terrorism to justify a drawdown from the Middle East. Trump should not underestimate “the potential for an ISIS comeback.”
The resurgence of ISIS—or something like it—is inevitable, said Spencer Ackerman in TheDailyBeast.com. “As long as there are American forces hunting, surveilling, and killing Muslims” in the Middle East and Africa, there will be no shortage of terrorist recruits. There was “no lasting victory” when the U.S. killed Al Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, or Bin Laden in 2011. There will always be more Bin Ladens and al-Baghdadis to hunt and kill in America’s “Forever War.”
The chaotic situation in northern Syria could provide ISIS an opportunity to regroup, said Anya van Wagtendonk in Vox.com. About 100 ISIS prisoners escaped when Kurdish forces abandoned the detention centers they were guarding to fight the Turkish invasion. Thousands more ISIS prisoners remain under Syrian Kurdish control, but the Kurds may be forced to abandon them as Turkey pushes them further south into Syria. Meanwhile, the American military presence has been reduced to guarding a handful of oil fields captured from ISIS. Trump’s “baffling plan” to seize Syrian oil probably violates international law, said Robin Wright in NewYorker.com. In his speech, Trump proposed to bring in ExxonMobil or another company to take over the captured oil fields. That’s highly impractical and would expose American leaders to prosecution for war crimes both under U.S. and international law, said Ryan Goodman, a former special legal counsel at the Department of Defense. “U.S. military commanders who engaged in pillaging Syria’s oil would risk criminal liability,” he said.
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from AP, Reuters, Getty ■