ISIS did not die with Al Baghdadi
▶ Just as the extremist group was born of Al Qaeda, its dying embers will ignite another threat
“Adepraved and dangerous man”: so said US President Donald Trump as the nine-year hunt for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi came to an end. The man who terrorised millions died a coward’s death, driven into a dead end by US special operations forces and blowing himself up with his suicide vest, together with three of his children. The highly secretive mission, carried out on Saturday with the co-operation of Syrian Kurds as well as Iraq, Russia and Turkey, is a significant moment. It marks the end of a chapter that began when Al Baghdadi established ISIS to terrorise Iraqis and Syrians, and culminated in his announcing a false caliphate from the pulpit of Al Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014. But while his death is an important moment for those who suffered at the hands of ISIS and for the security of the world at large, it does not mean the end of the global threat he represented. Al Baghdadi was a murky figure, living in the shadows and flitting between locations to evade detection. Even though he had only appeared a handful of times in public after founding ISIS from the roots of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2010, he had the power to magnetise impressionable followers, who flocked in their thousands to join his so-called caliphate. Despite the downfall of ISIS, many still believe in his extremist ideology. Al Baghdadi might be gone but there will be an equally depraved killer waiting to replace him, so long as the underlying causes that led to ISIS’s rise are not addressed.
In March, the US declared victory as troops, helped by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, drove ISIS out of its last bastion in Baghouz. But while the caliphate might have been all-but destroyed, ISIS still has a host of sleeper cells waiting to be reactivated. A report from Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led operation fighting ISIS, found the group had “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria”. Despite this, the US has decided to withdraw most of its troops from Syria, leaving tens of thousands of ISIS members and sympathisers in prisons and camps across northern Syria, an area that Turkey wants cleared of Kurdish fighters. ISIS is taking advantage of the chaos to make a comeback and some members have already escaped.
Given these facts, while the killing of Al Baghdadi burnishes Mr Trump’s reputation ahead of the 2020 election campaign, it serves as more of a badge of honour than an end to the battle against terrorism. More importantly, Al Baghdadi’s death at the hands of a declining US force in Syria signals the end of an era in which countries unite to fight ISIS. In 2014, the US led an international coalition to fight extremism with the likes of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France, Germany, the UK and Turkey. Such efforts must be kept alive because the root causes of ISIS’s rise to power still thrive and flourish. With fighting ongoing in Syria and a febrile atmosphere in Iraq, the potency for ISIS to re-emerge is great. The global community needs to keep working together in the fight against an ideology that seeks to seed young, impressionable minds and spread once again.