The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, commander of the Islamic State group, killed last weekend during a U.S. military operation in Syria, is a victory for the forces of stability and sanity. However, the threat of the extremist group has not ended. That will happen only when a genuine structure of peace and order is created in the volatile Middle East. That future is a long way away.
Al-Baghdadi headed the group that engaged in savage killings and broadcast them to the world in hopes of inspiring similar acts. He led the self-proclaimed caliphate that occupied a sprawling patch of territory in the Middle East, wielded a mighty military and marshalled formidable financial resources.
A devout and charismatic leader, Al-Baghdadi was a committed jihadist who spent a year in a U.S. prison in Iraq and then rose to lead IS, the group that shook the world when it took control of a patch of land the size of Great Britain which straddled the Syrian and Iraqi borders and declared in 2014 the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, a caliphate that demanded the allegiance of Muslims around the world. It ruled with an iron fist. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights concluded that the group “seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey.”
IS murdered apostates and raped, brutalized and enslaved women and children. Executions were publicized to intimidate foes and inspire followers. IS prompted terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, established affiliated groups across the Middle East, northern Africa and Southeast Asia and has supporters around the world.
Declaring itself a state made IS a soft target; an international coalition focused its forces on the group and by March of this year, the caliphate had lost all its territory. Al-Baghdadi was already underground, urging followers to attack Western targets and free IS members from prison. Intelligence services devoted considerable resources to tracking and finding him, a project that ended last weekend in a compound in northwest Syria that was assaulted by U.S. special operations forces. The terrorist leader reportedly detonated an explosive vest that killed himself and three of his children.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced the successful mission in his unique fashion, declaring that al-Baghdadi “died like a dog … like a coward.” He warned of “America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.” He added that the operation’s success relied on the help of other nations and people: Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Syrian Kurds.
Al-Baghdadi was a formidable figure, but he is not irreplaceable. Other terror groups have been decapitated and survived. IS itself is the offspring of al-Qaida in Iraq, whose leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
IS remains a potent insurgent force, with cells in 14 provinces or countries and an estimated tens of thousands of fighters in Syria and Iraq. More than 100 IS leaders held in prisons controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reportedly escaped after Trump declared he would withdraw the U.S. military from northern Syria.
That underscores a sad reality. If the United States wants to continue the fight against terrorist forces, it needs partners in the region, especially to provide intelligence. But no group, apart from the Kurds, who provided information leading to al-Baghdadi’s arrest and has been on the front-line of the fight against IS, has interests that align with those of Washington, and the U.S. is ending that relationship. The U.S. presence is being reduced and cannot count on other countries to share its priorities.
Worryingly, al-Baghdadi was found in Idlib province, a part of Syria near the border with Turkey that is overrun with extremist groups. The U.S. teams that conducted the operation against al-Baghdadi came from bases in Iraq, and not Turkey (which would be closer) and the U.S. did not inform the Turkish government except when there was a risk of conflict with its military forces.
Japan shares Trump’s inclination to see the Middle East as far away and distant from daily concerns. That is strictly true, but the lesson of the IS experience is that such groups do not believe in distance and can threaten this country even from thousands of kilometers away. Japan must recognize that the instability and disorder that has defined that region for generations creates fertile soil for extremist groups. Killing individuals, no matter how powerful, will prove fruitless when political and economic conditions breed disaffection and anger. Japan should try to help create the stability and order in the region that will prevent the next al-Baghdadi from emerging.