The world should greet the reported killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by celebrating America’s exceptional Special Forces, intelligence agents, CIA officers and satellite-surveillance operators. It was a complex and challenging mission flawlessly executed. Unfortunately, it is far from “mission accomplished” in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. The terrorists will continue to pose an extreme danger to Western interests around the world, because they are not dependent on a single charismatic leader. Rather, they are a lethal and venal ideology – structured as a loose network of operatives around the globe.
I recall the day in 2006, when I was a junior vice admiral and the senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, and we were in Moscow. We were called to a secure communications facility, and informed that the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had been killed in a similar mission. At the time, I thought this would be a death knell for Qaeda, which was already on the run. But it wasn’t. Ironically, after Zarqawi’s death, we began to see the construction of the Islamic State.
The point is that killing any individual is unlikely to have an immediate effect on these dangerous organizations. In fact, we should be particularly mindful that if Baghdadi is truly dead, there will be a tendency on the part of ISIS to “swing for the fences,” and accelerate any operations they have in the pipeline simply to show they are still in the game. Even after the last bit of territory from the “caliphate” was taken back from ISIS early this year, the terrorists were still able to plan, launch and conduct the Easter bombing operation in Sri Lanka, killing hundreds and injuring thousands at several churches.
Therefore, the key question is what should the US and its allies be doing to capitalize on the very important – but not definitive – defeat to ISIS that the death of its leader provides?
First, we must recognize that the key to confronting this kind of a terrorist network is creating a network of our own. That means, above all, international cooperation. This is precisely why the US abandonment of its Kurdish Syrian allies is a mistake – something upon which even top Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republicans including Senator Mitch McConnell can agree. Walking away from the Kurds means losing tactical intelligence on the battlefield, logistical support for the remaining Special Forces mission, and global faith that the US is a reliable partner. Russia, on the other hand, has stuck with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad through thick and thin.
Now the Syrian Kurds will probably be forced to cut a deal with Assad and the Russians. The decision to bring some US troops back into Syria to protect oil infrastructure is welcome, even if the mission is a little murky. Let’s hope the Pentagon can leverage even that relatively small presence to focus on the objective of defeating ISIS.
Another key is interagency cooperation, something at which the US government has improved vastly over the past two decades of war. The Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Department of Justice (it has a key role to play in terrorist financing), Drug Enforcement Administration (narcotics provide terrorist funding) – all must work together seamlessly. The success of the mission against Baghdadi is evidence that this is working, and needs to be built on. In particular, the nexus of Special Forces and CIA operational teams is crucial, especially if the Trump administration continues to eschew a significant footprint in the Middle East.
Finally, there is an important cyber component to defeating the Islamic State. It will continue to proselytize, recruit and conduct operations on the internet, as it did in Sri Lanka and will do again in Europe and America. Likewise, the message that the Islamic State is suffering significant losses should be pushed across global social networks.
Killing Baghdadi was a necessary and welcome step; but it alone is not sufficient to defeat ISIS. Above all, the US needs to retain a small, quick-reacting force in the region for this type of operation, despite frustration with what President Donald Trump calls the “blood-stained sands.” The alternative is letting ISIS rise again.