The Islamic State is one of the key pillars of the global jihadist movement, competing with al Qaeda, even after losing the core territory which comprised its self-declared caliphate. Based in Iraq and Syria, the group has co-opted local militant groups from West Africa to Southeast Asia, directed operations in Western capitals and inspired grassroots militants to conduct attacks around the globe.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced Oct. 27 that a U.S. military operation carried out by the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force with CIA support in Idlib province in northwestern Syria has resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi's death, however, will not do much to significantly weaken the wider capabilities of the Islamic State or its affiliates.
What It Means
Al-Baghdadi's death represents a significant symbolic victory for the United States and the rest of the anti-Islamic State coalition. Ever since al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph of the Islamic State in July 2014, his name has been the one to whom new recruits and newly aligned groups have pledged allegiance when joining the extremist group. Al-Baghdadi has been in hiding for many years now, and command and control of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq and the group's affiliates did not depend on direct coordination or communication with him for their ongoing operations. Al-Baghdadi also lacked the charisma of Osama bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda; al-Baghdadi's name may have been invoked during pledges of allegiance, but it was the idea of an expansive Islamic State that drew recruits, not al-Baghdadi himself. But since the affiliates pledged allegiance directly to al-Baghdadi, they are now free to disavow the group.
Several questions about the U.S. operation remain. Intriguingly, while Trump thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces for their cooperation in the raid, the information on his whereabouts could also have come from other extremist groups vehemently opposed to the Islamic State, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or even al Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Deen via Turkey. U.S. forces also recovered significant intelligence during the raid which will lead to additional operations against the group in Syria and Iraq.
The group has survived the losses of its leaders in the past.
The operation also highlights the complicated relationship between the United States and Turkey. On the one hand, the United States benefits from access to Turkish territory close to northern Syria where many extremist groups continue to operate. In fact, The New York Times reported that senior U.S. military leaders had decided to act quickly in the operation as they feared losing the ability to do so as the U.S. drew down its forces in Syria, which would only raise the importance of maintaining access to Turkish bases close to Syria. At the same time, however, it was Turkey's operation in northwestern Syria that led to the U.S. withdrawal, and Ankara is also heavily involved in backing a number of rebel groups in Idlib province, where lawlessness has allowed it to emerge as a significant stronghold for extremist groups.
More will be learned about the operation and the issues around it as further information comes out. But one thing is clear: The ongoing war against the Islamic State and other extremist groups will ultimately not be decided by the elimination of terrorist leaders, but rather by denying the groups territory and resources, and most important by undermining their violent ideology through the war of the narrative. The Islamic State has survived the losses of its leaders in the past, including the deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri in 2010, and has prepared itself to do so again. Starving such groups of territory, resources and recruits reduces the risk they pose and buys time for efforts to find an effective way to undermine their core message.