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President Trump on Sunday announced that American soldiers had carried out a raid in Syria that resulted in the death of the Islamic State terror group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“Last night the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice," Trump said in a national address in which he described the details of the operation, including how al-Baghdadi died by igniting a suicide vest after being cornered by U.S. Special Operations forces.
Al-Baghdadi led ISIS at the group’s peak when it controlled large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. He declared a caliphate in 2014, establishing a brutal system of theocratic rule.
ISIS gradually lost control over its territory in recent years and as the caliphate crumbled, al-Baghdadi had largely disappeared. Details of his location emerged after Iraqi intelligence officials captured one of his wives and a trusted courier, according to reports.
Why there’s debate:
While there’s broad consensus that al-Baghdadi’s death is a positive development in the war on terror, there’s disagreement as to just how much it will affect ISIS operations. Some experts argue that he held a unique position in the group’s mythology that can’t be easily replaced. Al-Baghdadi’s death comes at a time when ISIS is splintered and has lost territory, which could hinder the group’s ability to unify behind a new ideological mission.
Others argue that his death won’t have a significant impact on ISIS’s operations. The group has become decentralized since losing its caliphate and no longer relied on al-Baghdadi’s leadership, experts say. His death could even “galvanize” these loosely associated cells, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned. There are also fears that ISIS could see a resurgence, even without its leader, because of instability in the region driven by Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from northeast Syria and political unrest in Iraq.
His death robs ISIS of its figurehead
“Al-Baghdadi was charismatic and competent, and whoever is named as his successor — like some of Baghdadi’s predecessors — may prove inept, unable to lead the caliphate’s remnants or inspire the new generation. And whatever the successor’s abilities, if he doesn’t want to share al-Baghdadi’s fate, he will need to hide and avoid communicating, and, thus, will face difficulties rebuilding his organization.” — Daniel Byman, Lawfare
Al-Baghdadi’s symbolic power may mean he’s irreplaceable
“Baghdadi is significant because he declared himself the caliph and the head of a caliphate that was a rallying cry for tens of thousands of extremists around the world. That will be hard to replace.” — Former U.S. antiterrorism envoy Brett McGurk to New Yorker
His death undermines the group’s recruitment pitch
“His death is another strike against ISIS’s purported legitimacy, leaving it less able to claim to be any different from other violent extremist groups.” — Michael Safi, the Guardian
A series of major defeats may mean ISIS is too weak to recover
“That the Islamic State can easily survive the loss of its top leader is not as straightforward a proposition as seems to be widely believed. Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death, almost exactly seven months after the obliteration of the physical caliphate he built, comes at an exceptionally bad time. The organization is still struggling to recover from the collapse of its caliphate and the deaths of many top leaders. It is fragile, caught somewhere between being a proto-state and a full-fledged insurgency.” — Hassan Hassan, New York Times
ISIS is strong enough to endure al-Baghdadi’s death
“There was definitely a time when killing Baghdadi could’ve stopped ISIS’s rise. ... But I do think that the organization has moved well past Baghdadi in the same way that al-Qaeda moved past Osama bin Laden, to some extent. At this point — seven-plus years after the rise of ISIS — his death is far from a fatal strike against the organization.” — Former U.S. National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter to Vox
“Yet, despite what seems like good news, there are many indicators that Trump’s war on terror is short-sighted, un-strategic, and will — ultimately — increase threats from terrorism.” — Peter R. Neumann, Politico
Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria gives ISIS ground to reemerge
“The only way to permanently defeat terrorist organizations is to foster stability in the lands where they operate — the last thing that Trump, an agent of instability, is interested in. By removing most U.S. troops from Syria, and soon perhaps Afghanistan, he is likely to hand a victory to the terrorists that will far outweigh the transitory effects of Baghdadi’s demise.” — Max Boot, Washington Post
The group has become decentralized, with autonomous affiliates around the world
“ISIS, however, is far from finished. It operates in West Africa, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and has followers in Europe and elsewhere. That, in addition to as many as 18,000 fighters still on the loose between Syria and Iraq. ...There is no reason to conclude that the threat from ISIS’s far-flung network of affiliates and sympathizers has disappeared with the passing of Baghdadi.” — Ben Wedeman, CNN
Establishing the caliphate means al-Baghdadi’s symbolic power endures after his death
“Al-Baghdadi gave ISIL’s followers a tangible experience of an Islamic state established in the 21st century — something that had previously only been discussed in theory. As a result, the remaining members of the terrorist organisation and its future followers have a clear vision of what they are fighting for — the resurrection of al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, which given the instability in the region, will remain within their reach.” — Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Al Jazeera
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images