- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Islamic State was well-prepared for the eventual loss of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and likely is already taking steps to fill the vacuum left by his death at the hands of U.S. special operations forces over the weekend, experts warned Sunday as attention turned to the next phase of the fight.

President Trump announced Sunday that al-Baghdadi died “whimpering and crying” inside a tunnel in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province as U.S. troops closed in on his compound. He detonated a suicide vest that claimed his life as well as the lives of his wife and three of his children.

Al-Baghdadi was a shadowy figure who presided over the rise of ISIS five years ago into a powerful religious “caliphate” that controlled huge swaths of Iraq and Syria and boasted tens of thousands of well-trained terrorist fighters. His death marks a major victory in America’s war on the group and represents a significant foreign policy win for Mr. Trump.

“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” the president said in remarks from the White House. “He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place.”

But analysts, military officials and lawmakers cautioned that al-Baghdadi’s demise creates an entirely new set of national security challenges, including the risk that ISIS could lash out with a string of terrorist attacks, the potential for the group to continue its transition into a more covert network resembling al Qaeda in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the chance that al-Baghdadi’s successor could seek to make peace with al Qaeda in the hopes of forming a terrorist supergroup in the Middle East.

New dangers

The U.S. raid on al-Baghdadi’s hideout also raises fresh questions about the continued role of American forces inside Syria.

Mr. Trump this month ordered troops out of northern Syria in the face of a Turkish military assault against the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but officials across the political and national security spectrums acknowledged Sunday that an American presence inside the country — and the U.S. partnership with the SDF, which provided valuable intelligence on al-Baghdadi’s location — made the attack possible.

The U.S. still has a small number of forces stationed in Syria, and Mr. Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper over the weekend confirmed that American military assets will guard oil fields in northeastern Syria to keep the Islamic State from using them as a revenue source.

Keeping the pressure on ISIS and its estimated 10,000 trained fighters would be far easier with U.S. forces in Syria, analysts say.

“Getting the intelligence that will lead to such raids will be more difficult” without American forces there, said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies terrorist groups.

Ms. Zimmerman said the Islamic State and other Islamist organizations have developed complex command-and-control structures and have a process to install new leaders quickly, meaning it’s unlikely the group will fade into history with al-Baghdadi’s death.

“We have to assume the Islamic State has been prepared for Baghdadi’s death,” she said. “They are ready for this transition. Baghdadi was wearing a suicide vest, which means he was prepared to not be taken alive by Americans or others. There are all these indicators the organization was ready for this succession to occur.”

The president was notified Thursday afternoon that there was a “high probability” that al-Baghdadi would be in a compound in Idlib province in Syria, Vice President Mike Pence said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“At that point, President Trump asked our armed forces’ leadership to develop options. He was presented with those options on Friday morning,” Mr. Pence said.

He said Mr. Trump decided Saturday morning to move forward with the operation.

“To watch this attack unfold in real time [in the Situation Room] just made me so proud to be an American, proud to see our special forces, their extraordinary courage and professionalism, and also I want to say very proud to be vice president to a president who acted so decisively to take down a man who was a threat to this country and a threat to the world as the leader of ISIS,” Mr. Pence said.

The end of al-Baghdadi’s reign may open new opportunities for the organization, analysts said. Al-Baghdadi, who resurfaced in a video message in April after not being seen for nearly five years, stood against an ISIS alliance with al Qaeda.

His death may bring about a radical change in the groups’ relationship. Analysts noted that al-Baghdadi was holed up in Idlib province, an area of Syria that is well known as an al Qaeda haven.

“A jihadist merger may yet occur,” Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Caitlin Forrest, researchers with the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in a piece published Sunday. “Baghdadi’s refusal to accept mediation of his quarrel with al Qaeda precluded greater cooperation between the groups after 2014. His successor may be more willing to consider a unification, even a limited and pragmatic one. Baghdadi’s location in Syria’s al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province could indicate that even he had begun to reconsider a collaborative relationship with al Qaeda. Baghdadi’s death is certainly an important victory in the fight against jihadist terror, but that fight is far from over.”

ISIS still claims at least 14 “provinces” across the Middle East and Africa, the institute said, with bases of support in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere.

Defeating an ideology

Trump administration officials acknowledge the fight will continue but stress that they have made major gains in recent years.

“We defeated the physical caliphate earlier this year, and now the leader is dead,” Mr. Esper told CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday. “We’re going to watch carefully … and as a new leader and leaders pop up, we’ll go after them as well.”

Mr. Esper said “it’s hard to defeat an ideology,” underscoring the deep challenges that remain even after the U.S. and its allies have deprived ISIS of virtually all of the physical territory it once held.

Lawmakers of both parties praised the raid and the bravery of America’s men and women in uniform and said al-Baghdadi’s death is an important milestone in the yearslong fight against ISIS.

“This morning’s announcement should confirm for the world what many already knew — that terrorists cannot outlast or outmatch the commitment of the U.S. counter-terrorism apparatus. We will not stop or waver in destroying terrorist leaders wherever they hide,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said in a statement.

Despite the clear success of the attack, critics say the president’s actions in Syria in recent weeks have weakened America’s hand in the region. The SDF, a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State, accused Mr. Trump of stabbing them in the back after the president pulled U.S. forces from the Syria-Turkey border ahead of the Turkish invasion.

The decision to withdraw U.S. troops also spurred a newfound alliance among Turkey, Russia and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Perhaps most important, the SDF said it was forced to pull forces away from prisons housing Islamic State members and move them to the front lines to stand against the Turkish invasion.

“The overall downside to the United States may be greater because we now have potentially over 100 if not more ISIS fighters, many of them probably very dangerous, reconstituting themselves,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, told CNN. “So, good news [that al-Baghdadi is dead], but the overall sum of the actions that have happened in Syria over the past couple of weeks are not good news for the United States.”

In his White House remarks, Mr. Trump separated the al-Baghdadi raid from his broader policy goal of keeping the U.S. out of major military entanglements in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“The pullout had nothing to do with this,” he said. “We don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years.

“We’re out,” he said. “But we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil, and we may have to fight for the oil. That’s OK.”

Mr. Trump said Turkey, Russia, Iraq and the SDF played key parts in the mission’s success. The president said the SDF played no “military role” but gave the U.S. “information that turned out to be helpful.”

The exact level of cooperation between the U.S. and the Kurds remains murky.

In a post on Twitter, SDF commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi said a “joint operation” resulted in the death of al-Baghdadi and that the U.S. and SDF had been jointly tracking him for months.

“For five months there has been joint intel cooperation on the ground and accurate monitoring, until we achieved a joint operation to kill Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi,” he said. “Thanks to everybody who participate in this great mission.”

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