The reported death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on the weekend marks a pivotal moment in the international fight against a murderous group that once carved out a vast, theocratic quasi state amid the chaos of Syria’s eight-year-long civil war, luring would-be terrorists from around the world and inspiring violent attacks in other countries.
On Sunday morning, U.S. President Donald Trump announced Mr. al-Baghdadi’s demise in a raid by U.S. Special Forces. The assault took place in the wake of Mr. Trump pulling American forces back from the front lines in Syria.
Mr. al-Baghdadi, 48, blew himself up, along with three of his small children, after being cornered by U.S. forces in a tunnel underneath a compound in the Barisha area of northwestern Syria on Saturday, Mr. Trump said at the White House. He added that 11 children were rescued from the compound.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” the President said. “He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is a much safer place now.”
The development occurs at a critical time in the region, as a Trump-ordered U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria leaves Turkey, Russia and the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad to occupy land once controlled by the United States’ Kurdish allies.
And it arose at a key moment for the President, who has faced criticism for abandoning the United States’ Kurdish allies from his own Republican Party at the same time as he needs them to head off possible impeachment.
Mr. Trump, who said he watched the raid in real time in the White House situation room, recounted Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death in cinematic detail. Special forces landed by helicopter at the compound on Saturday night, blew open holes in the wall and killed or captured all of the occupants without any American loss of life, Mr. Trump said.
Mr. al-Baghdadi fled beneath the complex with three children, Mr. Trump said, as U.S. soldiers pursued him with dogs. When he could not escape, Mr. al-Baghdadi detonated an explosive vest. Despite the mutilation to his body and the partial cave-in of the tunnel, Mr. Trump said a DNA test positively identified the body.
“He died running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Mr. Trump said.
The Islamic State (IS) rose to international prominence in the summer of 2014 with a series of military victories that placed a large swath of Syria and part of Iraq under the control of its “caliphate.”
The group used propaganda videos showing the torture and execution of prisoners to recruit fighters from around the world, including in Canada. It was also cited as inspiration in attacks from France to Canada to Sri Lanka. And the organization killed American citizens, including beheading U.S. journalist James Foley on video.
An international coalition, led by the U.S. and including Canada, became involved in an air war to stop the group, with most of the front-line fighting done by Western-aligned Kurdish forces in Syria and Iran-backed militias in Iraq. The Islamic State’s territory was steadily rolled back, with its capital, Raqqa, captured in 2017.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hailed Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death as “a major step in the fight against [IS]” and vowed that Canada would keep fighting to defeat the group.
Mr. Trump credited Kurdish groups with supplying intelligence that led the U.S. to Mr. al-Baghdadi. The Associated Press, citing two unnamed Iraqi intelligence and security officials, said Iraqi forces captured the wife of one of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s aides and the terrorist leader’s brother-in-law, and both had given up information on his location.
Russia, Mr. al-Assad’s key ally, tried to cast doubt on the idea that Mr. al-Baghdadi was actually dead. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime frequently attempts to undermine news and information widely accepted by democratic countries. The RIA news agency quoted Major-General Igor Konashenkov describing the death as “yet another ‘elimination’” of the IS leader.
Mr. Trump sparked a bipartisan outcry earlier this month, when he retreated from northern Syria and gave Turkey his blessing to invade, driving out the Kurds in the process. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan subsequently made a deal with Mr. Putin allowing Russian and Assad-aligned forces to take over the Kurdish lands as well.
Republicans who had assailed Mr. Trump’s decision said they were heartened by the President’s announcement on Sunday. “What the President said today was very reassuring to me,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. Senator Mitt Romney tweeted that Mr. Trump deserved credit, along with intelligence officers and special forces, for eliminating Mr. al-Baghdadi.
Holding together his Republican congressional caucus will be crucial for Mr. Trump in his fight against Democratic efforts to impeach him for soliciting Ukrainian intervention in next year’s U.S. presidential election.
Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, warned that, despite the death of its leader, remnants of IS were still dangerous after the U.S. withdrawal.
“Scores of [IS] fighters remain under uncertain conditions in Syrian prisons, and countless others in the region and around the world remain intent on spreading their influence and committing acts of terror,” she said in a statement.
The raid on Mr. al-Baghdadi’s compound bore a striking resemblance to the 2011 operation to get al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed by special forces during a nighttime attack on his complex in Pakistan. Then-president Barack Obama used the operation to bolster his national-security credentials in his successful 2012 re-election campaign. Mr. Trump, who often compares himself with Mr. Obama, said on Sunday he believed the killing of Mr. al-Baghdadi was bigger news than the death of Mr. bin Laden.
Over the course of his 50-minute news conference, Mr. Trump threatened to deposit captured IS fighters from European countries at those countries’ borders to force them to take the terrorists back, and said the quality of the footage of the attack on Mr. al-Baghdadi’s compound was so “like a movie” that it should be released to deter anyone who would follow in his footsteps.
And Mr. Trump stuck with his push to get out of Syria, saying his interest there was only in eliminating IS and taking control of the country’s oil supply so it would not fall into the hands of terrorists.
“No,” he said, when asked if he would reconsider his decision to pull back. “We don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years. … We’re out.”
The Globe and Mail, October 27, 2019