Killing Terrorist Leaders Gets Attention, But It Doesn’t Stop Terrorism
Baghdadi’s death is indeed a turning point in the War on Terror, just as Osama bin Laden’s was in 2011. It’s just not clear what the war is turning to.
For nearly two decades, American leaders have stressed the need to address the root causes of terrorism. More often, though, they focus on something else: killing terrorists.
Donald Trump did so with particular relish when he announced yesterday morning that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader and the world’s most wanted terrorist, had died “whimpering and crying and screaming” in a special-operations raid over the weekend. The president, who campaigned in part on “bombing the hell” out of ISIS, has been quicker than his predecessors to define victory in military terms. In March, after the fall of the Islamic State’s last territorial redoubt, he drew criticism for declaring the group “100 percent” defeated—even though attacks and assassinations continued in the group’s name, and its leader was nowhere to be found.
Today he said he always had his sights set on the big guy: “Capturing or killing Baghdadi has been the top national-security priority of my administration.” Over nearly three years of his presidency, Trump said, his officials would report the deaths of other terrorist operatives and leaders; he said he’d never heard of many of them.
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To the extent that widespread deaths among ISIS middle- and upper-management ranks made it difficult for the organization to function—a tactic Barack Obama also relied on to help cripple terrorist networks—there was no symbolic victory like the death of the very top leader. And Baghdadi’s death is indeed a turning point in the War on Terror, just as Osama bin Laden’s was in 2011. It’s just not clear what the war is turning to.
Much like the end of the territorial caliphate, Baghdadi’s death won’t end the group as a whole, or the threat it poses. The so-called kingpin strategy of pursuing terrorist leaders to defeat the groups they lead has had mixed results historically. In some cases, a group simply carries on with a designated successor, like al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri following the death of bin Laden; in others, the death of a leader can fracture a terrorist group into violent, competing factions, as has been observed among some Mexican drug cartels. When the kingpin strategy “works” to end a terrorist group, the terrorism scholar Audrey Kurth Cronin has written, it tends to be in groups that are “hierarchically structured, young, characterized by a cult of personality, and lacking a viable successor.”
ISIS is young but famously loose in its structure; to the extent Baghdadi did enjoy a cult of personality, it may have faded with the loss of land, because much of the group’s propaganda appeal came from holding territory. By the time he died, Baghdadi was a caliph without a caliphate.
His real operational role is, moreover, unclear. Bin Laden, who died in a similar special-operations raid into Pakistan in 2011, did offer direction and guidance to al-Qaeda from hiding, as documents recovered from his compound after his death show. But Baghdadi, rumored to have been killed or injured numerous times before yesterday’s announcement, spent his last years on the run, reportedly with very little contact outside a small circle of people, avoiding the modern communications technology the group was otherwise famous for exploiting, for fear that cellphones could give away his location. He sometimes released recorded speeches to threaten the West and rally his followers—most recently in April. But a spokesman for the counter-ISIS coalition said in 2017 that Baghdadi had been “irrelevant for a long time”; earlier this year, a coalition spokesman told me via email that “his presence or absence within Daesh [ISIS] has no bearing on their current status.”
So why does the United States pour so many resources and risk so many lives in pursuit of such dubiously effective ends? “The kingpin strategy provides instant gratification, and of course [addressing] root causes is something … that takes years if not decades,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. Long-term investments in, say, political reform in the Sahel are not going to yield the kinds of results campaign ads are made of. The words Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead speak to an immediate and tangible achievement, as well as a kind of justice.
There is also a “threat-mitigation” factor in the moment, said Nicholas Rasmussen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Even when striking at a terrorist leader worsens underlying conditions, for instance by incurring civilian casualties, doing so may still be a rational choice in the face of an imminent threat. You could stop the hunt for terrorist leaders in, say, Yemen, and focus on conflict resolution and political reform. “In the meantime,” Rasmussen says, “I hope there’s no underwear bombs.”
The other problem is that there is no one root cause of terrorism, and some of the ones policy makers pointed to early after the September 11 attacks, such as poverty, have, research shows, turned out not to be strong drivers of terrorism at all. Even when a likely root cause is identified—civil war is strongly correlated with terrorism, for instance—what does “addressing” it mean? The Iraqi insurgency and the Syrian civil war helped drive the rise of ISIS; building peace in such contexts is a much more difficult and long-term proposition than even the most dangerous and complicated special-operations raid against a high-value target.
One irony is that, rhetorically at least, Trump’s strategy actually could deal with one root cause of terrorism: the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Bin Laden in 1996 cited the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia as one reason he was declaring war on the United States; Trump has repeatedly said he wants to get out of the region entirely. (The president’s preferences for now haven’t translated into less of a presence in the Middle East; the U.S. has sent an additional 14,000 troops to the region since May, including to Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2003.)
The U.S. celebrates quick victories as long-term problems continue to fester. Combatting terrorism doesn’t happen on America’s electoral timeline. “No one expected that we were going to win the Cold War in three years,” Hoffman said, “but we’ve had the expectation for the past 18 years that next year we’re going to win the war on terrorism.”