The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ‘emir’ of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in a raid by US Special Forces in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, is a major victory for the US-led war on terrorism. But the US alone cannot take credit for his death as many people, including Russian, Iraqi and Syrian intelligence agents and security forces, former ISIS members and Iraqi and Syrian civilians provided information about his location and input that contributed towards making the final operation possible and a success. Supposedly an Islamic scholar, who claimed to be a descendent of Prophet Mohammed, Baghdadi was earlier a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq. He founded the Islamic State of Syria in 2011, which then grew into ISIS and, by 2014, into a formidable jihadist force that was far more brutal than the al-Qaeda. Baghdadi was more ambitious than al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. He announced the creation of a ‘Caliphate’ in areas in Iraq and Syria and declared himself the Caliph. He took advantage of civil wars in Iraq and Syria and unrest elsewhere in countries with large Muslim populations to expand the ‘Caliphate.’ However, ISIS’ decline began around 2015 when, under pressure from US, Iraqi, Syrian and Russian forces, it started losing territory. In March this year, ISIS lost the last sliver of territory it once controlled. The so-called ‘Caliphate’ had crumbled. And yet, ISIS remained a potent force, able to inspire jihadists in Europe and Asia to carry out attacks in its name.
Baghdadi’s death is a setback for ISIS. A battle for succession could lead to its splintering. However, its ideology remains alive. Thus, whether as ISIS or under a new name, radical Islamists will continue waging jihad. They can be expected to carry out major attacks in the coming weeks and months to prove their potency, keep up the morale of fighters and to impress their funders. It was Baghdadi who called on Islamists in Europe and elsewhere to drive cars into crowds to kill people. Such attacks could increase now. The world must be on guard.
US President Donald Trump can be expected to use the successful operation against Baghdadi to deflect attention from his woes at home. He has been under bipartisan criticism for his decision to remove US forces from northern Syria, which paved the way for a Turkish offensive against US-allied Kurds. He is in trouble, too, over an unfolding impeachment inquiry relating to Ukraine. Whether American euphoria over Baghdadi’s death will last till elections next year remains to be seen.