The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Saturday is being celebrated as a major victory, but terrorism and national security experts warn his death could serve as a recruitment tool for the terror group — and that Baghdadi's death doesn't necessarily signal the end of the fight against ISIS.
Despite the fall of its so-called caliphate and Baghdadi's death, some experts say ISIS could actually become even more dangerous now — particularly given the nature of the terrorist leader's death.
"It is almost certainly the case that Baghdadi's 'martyrdom' will become a propaganda bonanza for Islamic State," Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University's Global Security Studies Program, told Insider.
Baghdadi killed himself with a suicide vest as US commandos stormed his compound in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Smith noted that the fact Baghdadi killed himself "versus being captured or killed by the US is a sign of strength in the imaginations of Islamic State's current members, and, crucially, prospective new recruits — particularly people who may be persuaded to perpetrate terrorist attacks here in the West."
Smith said that while it's "good practice" to put "iconic leadership figures" from groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda "out of business," it also "doesn't necessarily make the world a less dangerous place — and it can actually have the effect of improving a group's capabilities to recruit and incite violence, particularly here in the US."
Killing a terrorist leader doesn't kill an ideology
President Donald Trump described Baghdadi as "whimpering, crying and screaming all the way" during the raid. This claim has not been backed up by any clear evidence or other administration officials with knowledge of the operation. And some experts have suggested the president's language could bolster ISIS's narrative that the US is anti-Muslim and imperialistic, which is central to its recruiting efforts.
—Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 27, 2019
Michael Leiter, who directed the US National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011, told Vox that Trump "exaggerated Baghdadi's importance" and "repeatedly used language" that "feeds into the ISIS and the Al Qaeda narrative about the US being at war with Muslims in nations throughout the world, as well as solely caring about our own pecuniary, economic interests like oil."
Leiter said that Trump also exhibited a "clear lack of historical appreciation for how these organizations rise, take hold, and are potentially defeated."
"To the president it all became about finding and killing this one individual," Leiter added. "That's important, but it's not how these terrorist groups are ultimately ousted."
The deaths of top figures in terrorist organizations have also proved to be temporary setbacks for groups like ISIS in the past. Killing a person, regardless of their significance in a terror group, does not destroy an ideology.
As Javed Ali, a former White House counterterrorism director, put it to The Washington Post: "In the annals of modern counterterrorism so far, what history has shown is these types of strikes do not lead to the strategic collapse or organizational defeat of a terrorism organization."
Consecutive US military operations took out Baghdadi and ISIS spokesperson Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir in Syria over the weekend. But according to Newsweek, which initially broke the story of Baghdadi's death, the terror group already has already designated a new leader: Abdullah Qardash. It also seems to be the case that Baghdadi had largely become a symbolic leader for ISIS and not intricately involved in the group's day-to-day operations.
Baghdadi's death doesn't eliminate Trump's recent strategic blunder in Syria
There are some national security experts who believe that Baghdadi's death could hurt ISIS's recruiting efforts by presenting it as weakened and fragmented, but most seem to agree that this is not the end of the terror group and that Trump's recent decisions in Syria have been disastrous.
Baghdadi's death comes as Trump continues to face widespread backlash for pulling US troops out of northern Syria earlier this month. In doing so, Trump effectively abandoning Kurdish forces who bore the brunt of the US-led campaign against ISIS. The move has raised concerns in Congress and beyond that it paves the way for ISIS to make a comeback, but Trump appears to be leaning on Baghdadi's death in an effort to dispel these anxieties.
Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, told The Independent, "Eliminating a terrorist leader of this significance and prominence is a major accomplishment for the intelligence and military personnel who made it possible. And it's a serious step in degrading ISIS's ability to continue radicalizing and recruiting."
But Geltzer also said that ISIS as a group is "bigger" than Baghdadi, adding that "this operation alone doesn't come close to overcoming the strategic error Trump made in abandoning America's top ground partners in the fight against ISIS — a fight that's far from over."