Baghdadi’s Elimination: ISIS Down but Not Out

Published in IDSA on November 13, 2019

The elimination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal founder of ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), on October 27 is a significant achievement for the American counter-terrorism campaign. President Donald Trump while announcing Baghdadi’s death in a raid by the US Special Forces in northwest Syria said, “America and the world are safer today with leader of ISIS dead”.1

Baghdadi carried a bounty of US$ 25 million announced by the American Government, making him the world’s most wanted terrorist. Born as Ibrahim Ali al-Badri in Samarra, Iraq into a Sunni family in 1971, Baghdadi pursued his doctorate in Islamic studies at the Saddam University in Baghdad. Initially, he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2004, Baghdadi was arrested by the US troops in Fallujah and kept at Camp Bucca in Iraq for 10 months. It was here that he established a network of Islamist radicals.

The parent group of ISIS – the al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – was founded in 2004 by a Jordanian Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by exploiting Sunni sentiments against Shiites. After Zarqawi and his two successors Abu Ayub al-Misri and Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in American attacks, Baghdadi took over the reins of a weakened AQI. However, shortly after the US withdrawal from Iraq towards the end of 2011, AQI under Baghdadi captured large tracts of territory in Iraq as well as Syria. Baghdadi later renamed AQI as the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’.

In 2014, after declaring himself Caliph, Baghdadi ran a global terrorist network in over a dozen countries. His motive behind establishing a caliphate differed in concept from al Qaeda, under whom Baghdadi and his men had earlier operated. While Osama Bin Laden harboured designs to create a caliphate, he was sceptical of a strong response from the West which eventually turned out to be the reason why Baghdadi lost his State.2

Baghdadi exhorted terrorists to follow him, invoking religious fervour and hatred for non-believers, and skilfully employed the internet and media to urge his supporters to wage global jihad. He succeeded in establishing a ‘caliphate’ which lasted three years (2014-17) and included half of Syria and one-third of Iraq. At its peak, ISIS was the size of Britain with a population of around 12 million; a new normal for a ‘non state actor’ to challenge the very concept of ‘nation state’.

Baghdadi managed to evade capture for almost a decade by adopting stringent security measures as he did not trust even his closest associates. However, hunt for the ISIS chief had been on for some time. Detailed planning and preparations for the raid commenced a few months back when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) got specific inputs on Baghdadi’s whereabouts in a village deep inside northwestern Syria, where he had sought shelter in the home of Abu Salama, a commander of another extremist group called Hurras al-Din. The Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided the vital real-time intelligence about Baghdadi’s movements to the US intelligence agencies.

The US Special Forces were in the process of closing on to Baghdadi when President Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Syria in early October which disrupted the meticulous planning that was underway. This is said to have forced the Pentagon officials to hasten up the operation and go in for the risky night raid before the US troops and critical assets were pulled out.3

The raid per se was a difficult operation as the target was well inside the hostile territory dominated by the al Qaeda with airspace controlled by Syria and Russia. Incidentally, the mission had been called off twice earlier. As Baghdadi was expected to move out from his location any time, the raid had to be executed swiftly. The operation was cleared by Trump barely a few days before.

The operation was reportedly named after ‘Kayla Mueller’, an American aid worker who was abducted, raped repeatedly and killed by Baghdadi.4 For inserting the raiding force, eight CH-47 Chinook helicopters were employed. The heliborne force took off from a military base near Erbil in Iraq. Flying low to avoid detection, it took 70 minutes for the helicopters to reach Barisha, north of Idlib city in Syria. The ‘Delta Force’ comprising of Special Forces after being dropped in the vicinity of the target under covering fire went in for the walled compound, Baghdadi’s hideout. Trapped in a dead-end tunnel with no way to escape, Baghdadi blew himself along with two of his children by setting off the explosive vest he was wearing. Nine people were killed in the raid including senior ISIS leader Abu Yamaan.

The operation, executed with clockwork precision, was over in about two hours. The Delta Force accomplished its mission and exfiltrated virtually unscathed. This raid had many similarities with ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ which took out Osama Bin Laden hiding deep inside Pakistan on May 02, 2011. Both were heliborne operations undertaken by the US Special Forces based on hard actionable intelligence, deep inside hostile territory against top leaders of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisations.

Terrorist organisations are generally structured around a single leader who happens to be the core. Therefore, loss of top leadership has a devastating impact on such outfits, putting their very survival at stake. The killing of the ISIS chief followed by the elimination of his likely successor Abu Hassan al-Muhajir a day later in an American airstrike will weaken the ISIS global structures. On the other hand, it is a major boost to the US fight against terrorism as also a relief for anti-terror operations in other parts of the world.

The ISIS has tried to make inroads even into India by claiming to establish ‘Wilayah of Hind’ (India Province). It has called for jihad by raising sentiments around Kashmir. Around 100 Indians are believed to have joined ISIS in Syria. The ISIS will continue to make concerted efforts to recruit cadres from India and its neighbourhood. It can also collude with other terrorist organisations to carry out violent actions in India and pose a threat to overseas assets as well.

The ISIS may be down but not out as it is in the process of regrouping. A large number of ISIS cadres estimated to be over 25,000 are known to have survived. While confirming the demise of Baghdadi in the US raid, ISIS has vowed to avenge its chief’s death. It has already appointed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashmi as the new chief.5 The outfit has also changed its tactics by avoiding major terrorist actions. Instead, it has been mounting small scale operations through its sleeper cells across Syria and Iraq; besides ‘lone wolf’ strikes, making detection and prevention by law enforcement agencies extremely difficult. The decentralised ‘wilayahs’ are quite active in various parts of the world, especially in West Africa and South Asia.

Given the superpower rivalry and ensuing hostility amongst the regional players, West Asia (or the Middle East) is likely to remain in a state of flux. The departure of the American troops from Syria will have serious consequences both for the US and its allies in the region. While it would help Iran as well as ISIS, the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia will definitely be hurt. Given the scenario, any relaxation of pressure will give ISIS room for manoeuvre and ability to garner support of local allies. This could prove catastrophic if timely countermeasures are not taken by the global polity to strike at the ISIS roots.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.