President Trump walks to the White House podium to announce the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
It’s far too early to claim total victory. Here’s why.
Success has a thousand fathers, and it’s too early to know who exactly did what when it comes to the reported killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Every agency and ally will want to claim some share of the credit. Although the specifics remain elusive, what we do know about the raid that led to his death — and its consequences — illustrates a series of lessons about US counterterrorism since 9/11, when the United States put the fight against groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State at the top of its priority list.
Allies are everything
The US Kurdish allies in Syria — the same ones the United States abandoned when it abruptly withdrew most of its forces from Syria and greenlit a Turkish invasion — reportedly played a key role in providing intelligence for the raid. So, too, did Iraqi allies. This is the norm, not the exception. Much of the intelligence war on terrorism is done by, with, and through allies, which have on-the-ground information as well as a capacity to act locally, neither of which can be replaced without massive US troop deployments.
If the United States is going to fight global terrorist groups like the Islamic State, it will need a range of allies. Some are traditional friends and powerful states, like Australia and France, that have their own counterterrorism assets and operate in areas like Indonesia or West Africa where the United States has historically played little role. Others are local tribes and militias, whose forces are in direct contact with militants in remote parts of Somalia, Yemen, and other areas where jihadists are active. These allies risk the lives of their fighters and otherwise sacrifice to the cause of counterterrorism, and Americans should be grateful.
In his remarks on the raid, President Trump thanked Russia and Turkey as well as Iraq, Syria, and the Kurds. Turkey has proven at best a fitful ally against the Islamic State. It initially allowed jihadists considerable freedom to transit its territory, but over time became far more aggressive. Its invasion of Syria and attack on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-dominated group that for years has been in the front line against the Islamic State, shows that Ankara is far more concerned about Kurdish-linked unrest than fighting jihadists.
The SDF, for its part, will have less time and fewer resources to help the United States fight the Islamic State, as it will now be focused on the Turkish threat and on guarding its autonomy against Syria and Russia, to which it turned in desperation to defend against the Turkish onslaught. Russia, as President Trump pointed out, sees the Islamic State as an enemy, but any thanks should wait until Moscow proves its bona fides by using its own assets and pushing its Syria ally to prioritize fighting the Islamic State in the territory it has just seized from the SDF.
The global killing machine rumbles on
Before 9/11, the United States struggled to find, let alone kill, terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden. Since then, Washington has developed an impressive mix of intelligence and special operations capacities that are on the hunt for terrorist leaders. In Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and other countries, the United States has killed suspected terrorists using drones and special operations force raids. Such deaths do not by themselves destroy the terrorist groups, but they make them less effective, creating leadership confusion and forcing leaders to hide rather than plot attacks.
Baghdadi’s killing is likely to have a similar impact. It deprives the Islamic State of its so-called caliph, and it is unclear if his successor will be as charismatic or competent. The president claims the United States is already hunting his successor, and so his time at the helm may be short-lived. In any event, he will have to keep a low profile and will otherwise be unable to exert a high degree of leadership, command, and control without risking meeting the same fate as Baghdadi. Nevertheless, the Islamic State has a deep bench, and it has recovered from massive leadership losses in the past.
Havens don’t have to be havens
Terrorists benefit from safe havens, and jihadist groups in particular prey on weak states or those caught up in civil wars — such as Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda was able to build a mini-army in Afghanistan, with the United States seemingly impotent to stop it. Yet as the Baghdadi raid illustrates, these war zones are far less impenetrable than they were in the past.
Working with allies, the United States can bomb terrorist hideouts or raid them to arrest and kill their operatives. US intelligence, alone and in combination with allies, is far better able to monitor terrorist havens. Drones and other platforms have greatly expanded US strike options, and special operations forces are far better resourced and focused on the terrorism problem, too.
Even if the United States largely withdraws from Syria, it will still have some capacity to act there. The United States has five thousand troops in neighboring Iraq, and it could act from the territory of other allies. So Baghdadi’s followers and other thugs should sleep lightly — if at all.
Jihadist groups are hit hard
In the aftermath of 9/11, US officials feared jihadists would conduct similar attacks, including ones involving the use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. Yet although al-Qaeda launched bloody attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, and the Islamic State wreaked havoc in Paris in 2015 and Sri Lanka earlier this year, the last 18 years have seen far fewer attacks than anticipated. The al-Qaeda core has not conducted a major attack on the West in over a decade.
The collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate, and now the reported death of Baghdadi, deprive the group of one of its most important recruiting pitches and have put it on the defensive, forcing it to focus on surviving rather than conducting attacks on the West. European states have become more effective at counterterrorism, while last year saw only one death in the United States at the hands of jihadists.
Indeed, while civil wars like Syria and Yemen still rage at horrifying levels, terrorist attacks have fallen around the world. Part of this is because counterterrorism instruments and Western defenses have improved, but it’s also because the collapse of the caliphate and the withering of al-Qaeda has made the messages of extremists less compelling.
The hunt will continue
Given how hard the jihadists have been hit, it’s remarkable how enduring the groups have proven. Despite their losses, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are still standing, and their affiliates are robust. Ambassador Nathan Sales, the US counterterrorism coordinator, warns of the spread of al-Qaeda to Africa and even claims that “what we see today is an al-Qaida that is as strong as it has ever been.” The ideas the Islamic State and Al Qaeda promulgate now reach and inspire far more people than they did before 9/11. And some of the partners with whom the United States works are corrupt and brutal, and they will not be able to provide the long-term governance necessary to prevent the return of jihadist groups.
In Iraq and Syria, and in other lands where jihadist groups are active, much of the response will remain tactical, hunting group leaders and preventing the groups as a whole from developing havens and otherwise getting too strong. Baghdadi’s death is an important blow, but it is not the end of the struggle.
The president himself would do well to learn these lessons. His constant carping on European and other allies risks jeopardizing one of America’s most important counterterrorism assets. Abandoning key partners like the SDF is short-sighted and sends a message that America cannot be trusted.
At home, even as he praised intelligence officers in remarks announcing Baghdadi’s death, he railed against “poor leadership” in the intelligence community and “people who aren’t very intelligent having to do with intel,” probably references to officials involved in investigating his transgressions or standing up for independent analysis. Such pettiness and mistakes will make it harder to build on today’s important counterterrorism success.
Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter: @dbyman.