Is the World Safer Without Baghdadi?

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul.

Source Getty Images

Why you should care

The death of the man who led ISIS will dent the organization. But it’s unlikely to be a fatal blow.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

President Donald J. Trump Watches Raid On Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Compound

President Donald J. Trump and his cabinet as they monitored developments during a U.S. Special Operations raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s compound in Syria. (Photo by Shealah Craighead/The White House via Getty Images)

Source Getty Images

What happened? Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced that U.S. forces raided the hiding place of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northwest Syria, culminating in Baghdadi’s death via suicide vest at the age of 48. Without sparing the details, Trump — who described Baghdadi as “whimpering and crying and screaming” in his final moments — called the terrorist’s death “the biggest there is.” 

Why does it matter? While there’s consensus in the intelligence community that Baghdadi’s death is a good thing, it’s unclear whether this will put an end to ISIS — or even significantly weaken it. Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria was expected to strengthen the militants. Moreover, ISIS and earlier terror groups have lost leaders before and adapted. Baghdadi himself replaced Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, for example, as head of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (and later evolved into ISIS). Some analysts suggest that the death of Baghdadi yesterday could simply speed up the evolution of the terror group’s next phase.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

SYRIA-CONFLICT

Syrians sifting through the rubble at the site of a suspected US-led operation against Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (Photo by Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP) (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Source Getty Images

What difference? At its peak, ISIS controlled land in the Middle East equal to the size of Great Britain. But long before losing its last piece of territory in March, the group had transformed itself from a dying caliphate into a global international terrorist organization. Its propaganda and sophisticated recruitment strategies have franchises worldwide that long operated with considerable independence from Baghdadi, who’d been in hiding for years and was therefore less of a rallying figure. What’s more, U.S counterterrorism experts warn that the recruitment rate for ISIS has not fallen significantly. They suggest that the group’s violent ideology will continue to tap into grievances of young men around the world. 

Don’t call it a comeback. Even without its self-declared caliph, who’d been a fugitive since his group lost its last territory in March, ISIS could be poised to make a sweeping comeback in Syria. With the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces now cornered, and ISIS families languishing in prison, the group has stepped up attacks in areas it once controlled. There are also more than 18,000 fighters on the loose between Iraq and Syria, many of whom are looking for any instruction to regroup. Baghdadi, after all, tapped into grievances in Iraq and Syria, where much of the Sunni population has been marginalized. So the death of one of America’s most wanted men doesn’t offer much reprieve for civilians in the Middle East. They know ISIS’s ideology lives on. 

The Trump bump? The raid that killed Osama bin Laden saw Barack Obama’s approval rating briefly jump, and many are anticipating a similar bump for Trump — but it’s thought to be unlikely to last, especially as the narrative of potential impeachment remains the top political story.

WHAT TO READ

Inside the Mission That Killed Islamic State Leader Baghdadi, by Michael C. Bender, Raja Abdulrahim and Nancy A. Youssef in the Wall Street Journal

“The story of Baghdadi’s final moments is also one of American intelligence gathering, military force and astonishing warfare technology.”

Baghdadi Is Gone, but ISIS Isn’t Dead Yet, by Ben Wedeman at CNN

“There is no reason to conclude that the threat from ISIS’ far-flung network of affiliates and sympathizers has disappeared with the passing of Baghdadi. He may have excelled in his evil mission, but he was at the top of a pyramid of power and others will come forward to claim his mantle of leadership and perhaps learn from his demise.”

WHAT TO WATCH

President Trump Confirms Death of IS Leader Baghdadi in Successful Operation

Watch on Sky News on YouTube:

“Capturing or killing Baghdadi has been the top national security priority of my administration.”

Exclusive Footage From the Scene of US Raid That Killed Baghdadi

Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:

“It looks like America has got its public enemy number one. But what it means for ISIL and the conditions that created ISIL is a question that will remain in this region beyond the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Missed opportunity. The U.S. had actually detained Baghdadi before. In 2004, he was arrested in Fallujah during the U.S. military operation in Iraq. Though he was already involved with insurgent groups, records identified him not as a jihadist but as a civilian working as a secretary. He was set free in less than a year, and immediately dove back into jihadist organizing and eventually into the formation of ISIS. 

OZYNeed to Know

Quick briefings and smart previews you can't live without, making sure you not only survive but can thrive at the water cooler.