Iraq

Death blow to Islamic State

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, chief of the Islamic State, who is believed to have been killed in a U.S. military raid in Syria’s Idlib region. Photo: AFP

President Donald Trump in the Situation Room watching the U.S. Special Operations Forces close in on Baghdadi. Also seen are National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Vice President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. Photo: AFP

An October 27 image shows Mosul’s heavily damaged al-Nuri mosque in the former base of the Islamic State in northern Iraq, where Baghdadi used to address followers before the group was chased out of the area in 2017. Photo: AFP

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda-linked militant who led a bloody campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings and hostage beheadings in Iraq. He was killed in a U.S. air strike on June 8, 2006. Photo: AP

The U.S. President’s self-congratulation over the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was a product of the radicalisation that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, does not seem to take note of the continuing threat posed by the Daesh’s sleeper cells spread across the globe.

The reported targeted killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (IS, or Daesh), by the United States’ special forces in late October has come at an opportune time for politically beleaguered U.S. President Donald Trump. On October 27, Trump announced that the U.S. had “brought the world’s number one terrorist to justice”. In a rambling speech that lasted almost an hour, he said that Baghdadi blew himself up “crying and whimpering”, along with three of his children after he was cornered by the U.S. forces in Barisha, a village in north-western Syria, five kilometres from the Turkish border. Trump exulted in the killing, saying Baghdadi “died like a dog”.

Trump said that eight military helicopters flew for more than an hour in darkness over Syrian territory to carry out the execution. He said that the required permission was given by the Syrian government and Russia. (Russian forces are now deployed along Syria’s border with Turkey, following U.S. withdrawal from north-eastern Syria.)

The Russian Defence Ministry, however, has denied giving any permission for an operation by U.S. special forces and has voiced scepticism on the entire episode. The “contradictory details” given by the Pentagon of the raid “raise legitimate questions and doubts about its reality and all the more its success”. The Iraqi government says it provided the precise details of Baghdadi’s whereabouts to the Central Intelligence Agency. Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces claims credit for tipping off the Americans about Baghdadi.

Describing Baghdadi and his followers as “losers” and “savage monsters”, Trump seemed to be claiming sole credit for the assassination, insisting that Baghdadi was a much bigger prize than Osama bin Laden was. By all indications, Trump will play it up in his re-election campaign in 2020. In the past five years, the U.S. government claimed several times to have killed Baghdadi, but this time the U.S. says it has clinching DNA evidence that the man who killed himself by exploding a suicide vest in a dead-end tunnel was Baghdadi himself.

True, Baghdadi had a $25 million bounty on his head, but he never had the kind of charisma or stature that Osama bin Laden commanded among his followers. As for the “savagery”, the undoubtedly large-scale death and destruction wrought by the Daesh pales in comparison with the carnage unleashed in the region by U.S. wars in the region, in which millions have been killed.

The short-lived Islamic emirate that the Daesh established, encompassing significant chunks of Iraq and Syria, was a historic development. No other terror group ever before was able to establish a state and govern it for more than three years. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the U.S.’ support for regime change in Syria created the space for the Daesh to expand almost overnight and create a quasi-state. A leaked 2012 U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency memo explicitly stated that “the West, Gulf states and Turkey” were seeking a “Salafist principality” in Syria. But for the heroic fight put up by Shia militias trained by Iran and elite divisions of the Iraqi army, Baghdad, too, could have fallen to the Daesh.

The al-Nuri proclamation

Baghdadi first came into the international spotlight when he declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and proclaimed himself “the commander of the faithful” from the pulpit of the historic al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq’s third biggest city, on July 4, 2014. The caliphate was supposed to be a successor to the Ottoman dynasty, whose theocratic rule ended in the beginning of the 20th century. The sudden, ferocious attack by the Daesh forced the Iraqi army, which consisted of mainly Shia conscripts, to flee from Sunni-dominated Mosul, leaving behind their U.S.-supplied weaponry and even uniforms.

Following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq was torn apart by deep sectarian schisms that were encouraged by the U.S. One consequence was that the country’s Sunni minority became a fertile recruiting pool for the Daesh. Baghdadi, whose given name was Ibrahim Awad al-Samarrai, was born in 1971 near the Iraqi town of Samarra. He belonged to an ultraconservative family of preachers of the Salafi school of Islam, which considers Shias heretics and have scorn for all the other religions. Under Saddam Hussein and his secular Baath party, the Islamists were kept on a tight leash.

Product of the 2003 invasion

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi joined the resistance. He was captured by the Americans in the same year but was let off after 11 months. He was first held in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and then in Camp Bucca, a prison camp run by the U.S. military. The Americans either thought that he was not actively involved in the resistance or wanted to use him as an asset. In a way, U.S. intelligence failure played a crucial role in the subsequent chaos and mayhem that enveloped the region. The Iraqi authorities believe that Baghdadi was radicalised during his stay in the U.S.-run prison camp. The harsh treatment, which included routine torture, that the Americans meted out to prisoners radicalised many Iraqis. Many of Baghdadi’s fellow prisoners were also radical jehadists.

Baghdadi started out as an acolyte of the Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Levant. Zarqawi and his fighters gave U.S. forces a hard time in Sunni-dominated central Iraq. After Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2006, his followers broke away from Al Qaeda and formed the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and merged with other resistance groups fighting on the ground in the country. These included remnants of the old Iraqi army and even former secular Baathists like Izzat Ibrahim, who had been second in command to Saddam Hussein at the time of the U.S. invasion. When this correspondent was in Baghdad just before the U.S. invasion, senior Baath officials were openly saying that they would even “join hands with the Devil” to fight a U.S. occupation. That was exactly what happened. Former Iraqi army officers and soldiers joined the Islamist-led resistance, providing it with training and expertise in military planning.

After Zarqawi’s death, the leadership passed on to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. After he was killed by U.S. forces in 2010, it went to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Under him, the Daesh expanded dramatically in Iraq and Syria and in 2012 was renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Western intervention in Syria helped the Daesh. U.S. arms and Gulf petrodollars were flowing to the Islamist groups that were recruited to overthrow the secular government in Damascus. A lot of these arms and many of the fighters soon joined the Daesh.

Widespread reach

The Daesh’s popularity among the ranks of extremist fighters and supporters worldwide soared after its dramatic capture of Mosul and other cities of Iraq. (Al Qaeda, meanwhile, virtually ceased to exist in the country.) The U.S.,which did not much mind the Daesh working for the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, started taking the outfit seriously only after it swept into Iraq from Syria. (Trump, who had talked of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, has once again given in to the war hawks in Washington and said that he will keep troops in Syria “to secure the oil”. Even in the bad old days of colonial rule, imperialists were more circumspect in advertising their goals. Trump has no compunction in openly saying that the U.S. is now in the region to seize hydrocarbon assets of sovereign countries.)

The Daesh and Al Qaeda became sworn enemies in 2013 after Baghdadi refused to recognise the leadership of the Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Daesh in fact declared war on the al-Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that was also fighting against the government in Damascus and which still controls large areas in Idlib province. The Nusra Front was once affiliated to the Daesh. The Daesh and Al Qaeda are also fighting each other in Afghanistan and other countries.

Mindless brutality

The brutality unleashed by the Daesh drew criticism even from the Al Qaeda leadership. Women accused of adultery were subjected to death by stoning, Yazidi women were taken as sex slaves and the men killed because of their non-Islamic religious beliefs. Thieves had their limbs amputated. Those who opposed the Daesh were summarily beheaded and videos of their gruesome deaths were circulated. The Al Qaeda leadership deplored this mindless violence and in particular lamented the large-scale targeting of Shia mosques and residential areas. In one incident, the Daesh massacred 1,700 Shia military cadets it had captured. The Daesh’s atrocities against minority groups like the Christians and the Yazidis have been well documented.

At one point, the Daesh-controlled territory extending from northern Syria to the gates of Baghdad. The first terror group to hold sway over such a large swathe of land, it became the richest terrorist organisation in history. Towns and villages along the fertile valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates were under its domination. Most of Syria’s oil and gas fields had come under the Daesh’s control and were an important source of revenue for the short-lived emirate. The Daesh’s slickly edited propaganda outlet soon had an avid international following. International jehadi groups that had once flocked to Al Qaeda now looked to the Daesh for leadership. Islamist zealots from all over the world started answering the calls for global jehad issued by the Daesh. Thousands of fighters, including a few from India, crossed into Syria and Iraq from Turkey and other neighbouring countries. Many of the new adherents stayed in their own home countries and were remote-controlled by the Daesh. In early October, a Daesh adherent working at the headquarters of the French police went on the rampage and killed four of his fellow workers.

The Syrian government and other observers of the region claim that many neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, did nothing to stop fighters and sympathisers of the Daesh from crossing over into Syria to serve the caliphate presided over by Baghdadi. Outside the region, groups claiming allegiance to the Daesh have launched spectacular and bloody terror attacks in London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Orlando and Berlin. The Daesh franchises in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have staged periodic attacks causing mass casualties.

Active in the Sinai peninsula, the Daesh downed a Russian passenger jet over Egyptian airspace three years ago. A truck bomb in July 2016 killed more than 320 people in a crowded shopping area in Baghdad. Most of the areas the Daesh targeted in the region were Shia-dominated. Under Baghdadi’s orders, many of the historic monuments and structures in the ancient oasis town of Palmyra were wantonly destroyed. Ancient archaeological sites and monuments in Nineveh and elsewhere were smashed into smithereens.

The mindless barbarism ended after the fall of Mosul in 2017 and the liberation of the caliphate’s administrative capital, Raqqa, in Syria. It required a significant joint military effort involving the disparate forces in the region to physically uproot the Daesh infrastructure. U.S. firepower alone could not have liberated Mosul. The role of the Iraqi army, helped by Shia militias trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was important. Similarly, in Syria, the U.S. Air Force bombed Raqqa into rubble. The Syrian Army, aided by Hizbollah and the Russian air force, also played a crucial role.

Seven months ago, the Daesh lost its final slice of territory, in Barghouz. Baghdadi had very few places left to hide, and he had too many enemies. He was located and eliminated in the part of Idlib province in north-western Syria that is still under Al Qaeda’s control. There is some speculation that the Nusra Front, now calling itself the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, had also been on the verge of locating Baghdadi. The group has good relations with Turkey and may have passed on intelligence on the Daesh leader to Ankara. Trump acknowledged that the U.S. mission could achieve success only because of the cooperation extended by Russia, Syria, Iraq, the Syrian Kurds and Turkey.

After Baghdadi, what?

Baghdadi’s death, which followed significant military defeats suffered by the Daesh, is a setback for the group. All the same, most counterterrorism experts believe that the Daesh has established hundreds of sleeper cells all over the world and continues to pose a significant threat. Most of these cells are in the Arabian Peninsula and the Maghreb, and they continue to launch isolated suicide attacks all over the globe. But the number of attacks attributed to the Daesh in Syria and Iraq has gone down considerably in recent months.

Baghdadi, in one of his last recordings released in October, had claimed that his group was carrying out attacks on a daily basis. The last video recording of Baghdadi was in April, where he was seen praising the horrific Easter bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people. Western intelligence agencies and those in the region have said that the line of succession was charted out by Baghdadi, who knew that his time was running out.

The death of Osama bin Laden did not stop Al Qaeda from expanding. Terror groups have in fact spread their wings even farther. Al Qaeda and the Daesh have established a firm footing in other Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. In Kashmir, too, the black flag of the Daesh has been raised occasionally. Daesh-trained foreign fighters have been returning to their native countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. They will try their best to groom the next generation of global jehadists. As recent history has shown, jehadi groups keep on evolving and will continue to pose a threat to the international community.

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