How Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in spite of Trump - not because of him

Analysis: Planning began before president withdrew US forces from northern Syria 

Kim Sengupta
Defence Editor
Monday 28 October 2019 20:38
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Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a US-led raid that relied on Kurdish intelligence.
Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a US-led raid that relied on Kurdish intelligence.

Donald Trump milked the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the full, as was to be expected. It is the one foreign and defence policy success he has had after a string of failures.

It was also, according to him, a massive riposte to all those who had savaged his policy in Syria. And, he must have felt, a very welcome distraction from an ever widening Impeachment hearing and his other travails.

But in reality, the killing of the Isis leader took place not because of Mr Trump’s actions, but despite them.

It was made possible due to a significant amount of information which had been passed by Kurdish allies in Syria he had abandoned and carried out by the US military and intelligence services - people who he had regularly traduced.

The US president did acknowledge the help in his press conference on Sunday, saying the “Kurds gave us some information”.

But that acknowledgement – to same group who lost 11,000 men and women fighting Isis alongside the Americans and the ones he left to face the onslaught of a Turkish military offensive – came after he had first expressed resounding thanks to the Russians for allowing the American mission to fly through the airspace US has vacated and Moscow now owns.

It came along with gratitude to the government of Recep Teyyep Erdogan for “not being a problem.”

The initial reports of Baghdadi’s whereabouts came to the American security agencies, according to a number of reports, in the summer. The exact details of what was known about him at the time remains unclear apart from a location for his hideout in north west Syria. But The New York Times reveals that operational planning began around that time and also that vital information was obtained from interrogations of one of Baghdadi’s wives and a courier who were captured.

So unless the US president was kept uninformed about the intelligence and military situation over the Isis leader – and there is no suggestion that was the case – he decided to pull American troops out of northern Syria, in October, while this highly sensitive and difficult mission was reaching a crucial stage.

We now know that Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal, following a telephone call with Erdogan, caught the Pentagon and the State Department by surprise, caused severe logistical problems and led to deep unhappiness among many military and intelligence officials over the treatment of the Kurdish allies.

Despite that, the American military managed to carry out the Baghdadi operation and the Kurds, in spite of being let down by the Trump administration, did not sabotage the mission, maintaining secrecy and enabling it to take place.

One wonders, a senior US security official privately reflected, what happens if the Kurds get important actionable intelligence now? Would they really go back to the Americans? Or the Russians who stand by their allies?

Trump had repeatedly accused Barack Obama of creating Isis by withdrawing troops from Iraq.

“He was the founder, the way he got out of Iraq, that was the founding of Isis,” he said on the the presidential campaign trial in August 2016.

It is true that what happened in Iraq following the US withdrawal, albeit a far more structured and long drawn out process than Trump’s sudden retreat from Syria, created Sunni resentment which extremist groups like al-Qaeda and Isis exploited with violent consequences.

But it was in Obama’s watch that Osama bin Laden, a far more totemic figure than Baghdadi, heading an organisation which continues to have a far wider global reach than Isis, was eliminated.

‘He died whimpering and crying’: Trump announces Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed in US raid in Syria

Baghdadi’s assassination was Trump’s Bin Laden moment. But the two presidents handled the two cases very differently.

Obama’s announcement of Bin Laden’s death took everyone, apart from a closed official circle, by great surprise. His televised address after the raid, cutting into regular scheduled programming, was dramatic but also full of gravitas.

He talked in a measured and dispassionate tone, keeping details brief and un-sensational. He ended by speaking about 9/11 attacks and addressed the bereaved families. He then praised the values of USA, turned around from the microphone and walked back into the White House.

Trump, in contrast, began with the tweet teaser “something very big has just happened” even before, by the Pentagon timeline of events, Baghdadi’s death had been fully ascertained.

Twelve hours later, at his press conference, he spoke in lip-smacking tone about the end of Baghdadi and his three children.

“He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way…. He died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying .... I got to watch much of it… it was as though you were watching a movie” he said.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper pointedly avoided the “whimpering” line when speaking later. “I don’t’ have these details,” he said tactfully. "The president probably had the opportunity to talk to the commanders on the ground”.

Perhaps – except that American, and for that matter British, commanders do not generally talk in that manner that about their adversaries, I have found in my time with them in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of these wars, there is little gloating over fallen enemies. Esper, a former infantry officer, would have known that. Trump, the Vietnam draft dodger may not have.

Away from presentation, there are important differences between the importance of Bin Laden and Baghdadi when the end came for them.

The al-Qaeda leader, hidden in his sanctuary in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, kept in regular and extensive contact with his chain of command in Pakistan and abroad.

As al-Qaeda became a global franchise, authority was, necessarily, delegated on a number of issues. But evidence has emerged of a surprising amount of international liaison between the different groups while Bin Laden remained, until the end, a revered chief.

That is not quite the case with Baghdadi. Former Isis members have pointed out that to be a Caliph, one must be the head of an Islamic state and implement Islamic law. A pledge of allegiance to a Caliph (bay’ah) is a contract and when the Caliph is no longer in charge of a state, that contract falls into abeyance.

It could be argued that Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over as the head of al-Qaeda, has been, since the caliphate collapsed, a far more potent figure in the world of international jihad than the leader of Isis. As Nathan Sales, the State Department’s Counter-terrorism Coordinator pointed out three months ago “ al-Qaeda has been strategic and patient over the past several years. It let Isis absorb the brunt of the world’s counter-terrorism efforts while patiently reconstituting itself.”

On the run, Baghdadi had little means to exercise command and control. Without a friendly state to protect him, and being the subject of an intense hunt, made need for utmost secrecy imperative, which in turn meant communications had to be kept to a bare minimum.

As Brett McGurk, who had served in senior national security positions under George W Bush, Obama and also Trump pointed out recently, Isis used the Syrian town of Manbij for “planning major attacks in Europe”.

This was stopped by the Kurds.

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“After the Paris attacks and threats growing, we enabled the [Kurdish led] SDF, over Turkey’s objections, to seize Manbij," McGurk said. "Since then there has been no further directed attack into Europe. It also led to an information haul enabling us to decimate Isis leadership.”

But Isis had foreseen that its command may be damages and thus the exhortations to its followers in the West and elsewhere to carry out their own autonomous terrorist attacks.

This has happened, continues to take place, and is not something which is going to cease with Baghdadi’s demise.

Trump may have felt that Obama’s “kill” would overshadow his own. He arbitrarily introduced the al-Qaeda chief into his press conference on Baghdadi.

“Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Centre. This is a man [Baghdadi] who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country, a caliphate, and was trying to do it again”, he wanted people to know, in case they thought otherwise.

There is another reason for Trump to smart about the Bin Laden killing. The man who commanded the mission, Admiral William McRaven, has scathingly criticised the president warning that the greatest threat to American democracy now comes not from a rogue regime or a terrorist group but from Trump.

The Admiral said he and his comrades in national security felt that “the America that they believed in was under attack, not from without, but from within.. it is time for a new person in the Oval Office ... This president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs.”

In response, Trump attacked the highly decorated McRaven as someone inept who should have got to Bin Laden sooner.

The admiral is one among many senior military officers who had been scathingly critical of the current president. One cannot help but wonder how long it will be before Trump falls out with those who took part in the Baghdadi operation giving him his triumph.

Isis will continue with its jihad, it will form a new leadership, perhaps some of them from the fighters who had escaped from Kurdish run prisons, and areas where they were trapped , due to Trump’s troops pullout.

They and other violent extremist groups will continue attacks, sometimes in competition sometimes with coordination. There were three lethal bombings carried out by Isis, al-Qaeda and the Taliban respectively in a 10 day period when I was there recently.

And Donald Trump is likely to find that the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, at the end of the day, only a short lived distraction from the troubles he faces.

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