Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead but the threat posed by the terrorist organization he headed is nearly as vibrant as ever, at least based on a reading of press and political reaction. Michael Leiter, who led the National Counterterrorism Center during the Osama bin Laden raid, told Vox that Baghdadi’s death is important but “far from a fatal strike” and “the threat is not gone at all.” A CNN headline said, “‘Ideology does not die with Baghdadi’: For US law enforcement, ISIS threat remains.”
The Daily News carried a similar message in an op-ed headlined, “Why ISIS remains far from finished: A warning from two leading counterterrorism officials.” It was written by former New York City Police Department commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mitchell Silber, both of the Guardian Group, an intelligence and security form whose mission is to “provide bespoke intelligence, security and digital security advice to safeguard critical human, corporate and governmental assets worldwide” from terrorism.
One more from the New York Times, under the headline, “Leader’s Death Will Damage ISIS, but Not Destroy It,” said that ISIS has been preparing for al-Baghdadi’s death and “had decentralized, allowing followers and franchises to carry out its violent ideology on their own.”
ISIS may not be fully “finished” and people affiliated with the group (or who claim to be) can and surely will carry out terrorist attacks, but ISIS as a political and military force has been besieged for years. The group once controlled a large chunk of land in Iraq and Syria, proclaimed a caliphate that brutally ruled over about 8 million people, and had a lavish treasury. It now holds no territory and its vile leader is dead.
Back in March, as ISIS was crumbling in Syria, President Trump’s envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, redefined U.S. policy as the “enduring defeat” of the group. “We’re a big step closer to that today, but ISIS still lives on in various cells and in the minds of many of the people in the areas that we’ve liberated,” he said.
The best way to fight that would be to draw down the U.S. presence in the Middle East, stop supporting corrupt dictators and end blanket support for Israel. Since that’s not going to happen, there’s got to be some reason to justify keeping all those U.S. troops and bases in the Middle East so most of the political and media establishment will likely continue hyping the ISIS threat. “We cannot afford to get distracted or take our eye off the target,” Senator Joe Biden said today. “We must keep up the pressure to prevent ISIS from ever regrouping or again threatening the United States.”
Following his lunatic press conference yesterday, President Trump, who even before Baghdadi’s death had claimed ISIS was 100 percent beaten, today reduced that estimate to 70 percent. That’s handy because in announcing Baghdadi’s death, he said “we are leaving soldiers [in Syria] to secure the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil. It’s okay. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they’ll have a hell of a fight.”
Benjamin Friedman of the think tank Defense Priorities issued a statement today that said Baghdadi “had probably ceased to be operationally important while on the run, with his organization broken into bits. ISIS is weak and flailing, which undercuts its danger…Baghdadi’s death, five years after he declared himself ‘caliph’ over millions of Syrians and Iraqis, reinforces the failure of his organization.”
Defense Priorities, incidentally, is a think tank affiliated with the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party. I don’t agree with it on a lot of issues, but at least it’s portraying Baghdadi’s death as a blow against a crumbling organization, not as grounds for alarm.