Fall of a brutal leader

Following the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the United States is seeking to cut off grassroots support for the group and is counting on friendly countries in Asia to join the latest front in the war on terror. Sam Kessler reports

As the head of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the leader of a violent militant group which ran rampant across the Middle East and inspired terrorists around the world. He regarded the United States as enemy number one and encouraged his followers to engage in a ‘war of civilisations’.

Now Baghdadi is dead after US special forces coordinated a raid on his compound near the Turkish and Syrian Idlib borders. President Donald Trump said he ended up committing suicide rather than being caught and put on trial for his actions, which ended a reign of ruthless bloodshed and regional instability, forged by his militant attempts to set up an Islamic caliphate within the Middle East.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said that fewer than a hundred American troops were involved in the ground operation and the goal had been to capture rather than kill the target. ‘We tried to call Baghdadi out and ask him to surrender himself. He refused and went down into a subterranean area. We were in the process of trying to getting him out but he detonated a suicide vest, and we believe killed himself,’ Esper explained in an interview with CNN.

Bigger than bin Laden

Baghdadi eclipsed Osama bin Laden as the pre-eminent jihadi threat in spring 2010, when he took over what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But counter-terrorism experts question whether his death will be enough to destroy the network. After all, many of the previous leaders of the group were either killed or captured, yet elements fought on. In some cases, the disruption appeared to cause a power vacuum which provoked ever more extreme actions by surviving members.

This is why, for the United States, the death of Baghdadi is not the end of the affair. It aims to continue the battle against Islamic extremist groups through various means. In an interview with the Military Times, Esper spoke of the recent airstrikes that targeted Islamic State fighters in Libya. ‘We continue to mow the lawn, and that means every now and then, you have to do these things to stay on top of it so that a threat doesn’t grow, doesn’t resurge.’

Waiting for more war

Other experts such as Colin P. Clark of the Rand Corporation note that there are several possible scenarios regarding the leadership and structure of Islamic State. He remarked that Baghdadi’s death ‘will likely weaken its command and control network and cause some of its affiliates to either assert more independence or retreat back into the localised conflicts they were previously engaged in’.

MAKING FRIENDS IN ASIA: US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper (l) shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his Nov. 15 visit to Seoul
MAKING FRIENDS IN ASIA: US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper (l) shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his Nov. 15 visit to Seoul

Clark also said the remaining members of the Islamic State remain in flux as they continue their fighting and decide on a new round of leadership. Baghdadi was renowned for his ‘cult of personality’, noted Clark, which inspired thousands of foreign nationals to follow him on military campaigns that focused primarily on setting up an established Islamic caliphate. This leads to the concern that many battle-hardened soldiers are seeking a new leader and a new cause for which to go to war.

Allies in Asia

The Americans are aware that the international jihadi network has supporters in many parts of the world, including Asia. Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counter-terrorism coordinator, said on a recent visit to the Philippines: ‘We have to be working closely with regional partners who share our concern about these threats to bring to bear all the tools of national power.’

The US will establish a centre in the Philippines to train Southeast Asian authorities on how to counter Islamic State sympathisers in the region and respond to terror attacks. Southeast Asian nations will also get US assistance to boost border security and cooperation to cut off the flow of fighters, weapons and money used for terrorism.

On another front, the US is watching carefully the actions of Turkey, following its recent incursion into Syria. Mark Esper stressed in a recent meeting with NATO defence ministers that it was crucial to bring Turkey ‘back in the fold’ since it has recently purchased arms from Russia.

President Trump is of the view that even America’s rivals have much to gain by suppressing the threats from ISIS and associated militant groups. He specifically called on Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Iraq to co-operate in preventing the spread of terrorism.


Sam Kessler writes on global security, geopolitics, and business, and has an MA in National Security and Intelligence Analysis from American Military University. He can be contacted via his website/blog www.samkessler.com

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