The meteoric rise and violent demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the egregious Islamic State (ISIS), who attained notoriety as the world’s most vicious Islamist villain, is destined to remain an enduring mystery despite the incredible hype about the manner of his death.
His death might have been described in considerable detail by US President Donald Trump, who has taken credit for ridding the world of an obvious evil, but the circumstances of his rise from obscurity to the head of an Islamic “caliphate” created with the help of invisible forces and formidable military capabilities will remain a matter of conjecture. So will the timing of his killing and how US special forces managed to penetrate a hostile ISIS-controlled area, hemmed in all sides by several military powers.
The world will never know for sure which powers secretly supported al-Baghdadi, hoisted him onto the centrestage in the strife-torn Middle East, funded his considerable military operations or provided his fighters routes of ingress into Syria and Iraq.
He will merely be reviled and quickly cast into the dustbin of history heaped with infamous figures such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussain, Muammar Gaddafi and others.
Millions will now sigh in relief, especially those whose lives were torn asunder by the depredations of Baghdadi’s ISIS, which controlled much of Iraq and Syria for several years. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed, displaced or tortured by his fanatical forces. The extent of his barbarity has horrified most Muslims and fuelled Islamophobia across the world.
To be sure, his death in a US military raid on his compound in Idlib in northern Syria is a matter of rejoicing. One can even empathise with President Trump’s relish when he declared: “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead… He died like a dog, he died like a coward, he was whimpering, screaming and crying.”
The US forces were apparently led to Baghdadi’s hideout by the Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). An SDF undercover operative who penetrated the ISIS leader’s security stole his underwear, which was used to determine his DNA print.
Once identified and located, a US military team, along with a military dog (made famous by President Trump’s repeated mentions of a “beautiful dog”), were sent in to eliminate him. Baghdadi, according to President Trump, was chased down a tunnel where he apparently detonated a suicide vest he was wearing, killing himself and three of his children.
The United States can now wash its hands off the disagreeable al-Baghdadi affair, withdraw its military from Syria and call the entire Syrian episode a mistake.
Yet, the US-led intervention in Syria, which saw the rise of al-Baghdadi and his Islamic caliphate, will continue to dissonate for years to come. The US in the ultimate analysis was responsible for unleashing, or at the least, encouraging jihad in Syria in order to destroy the Bashar al-Assad regime, which was considered hostile to Western interests in West Asia.
This was a repeat of US policy in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when the Afghan jihad was created to counter the Soviet occupation of that country. Numerous radical Islamist Afghan groups were established with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate to be trained in arms and dispatched across the border.
The Soviets were ultimately defeated by the Afghan mujahideen, aided in no small measure by the sophisticated and vast quantities of arms provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia. However, the Mujahideen victory set in motion a cycle of unending warfare in Afghanistan, which continues to this day and which incidentally has caused the deaths of thousands of American combatants.
A similar dynamic is inevitable in the Syria-Iraq region where the destruction or weakening of existing regimes has released competing forces, invited outside intervention and added the influence of radical Islam. This, most strategists will acknowledge, is a cocktail for catastrophe.
A number of analysts have suspected but never proved Washington’s complicity in aiding the ISIS in its initial days. The main enemy at that time was the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which was considered hostile to most US allies in West Asia including Israel, Turkey and the Arab monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The destruction of the Assad regime was an avowed aim of the US and its allies.
It is widely believed that a number of countries massively aided the ISIS and al-Baghdadi because they were viewed as staunch Sunnis best suited to bring down the hated Assad regime of the Alawites (a Muslim sect closer to the Shias than the Sunnis).
Turkey covertly supported the ISIS and other jihadists for two reasons: one, because it despised the Assad regime and two, because it hoped the jihadists would also consume the hated Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Several Western commentators have written about the covert support given by West Asian powers to ISIS and how Washington was fully aware of what was going on. One article in the Independent quoted a leaked 2014 US state department memo which admitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar (as well as Turkey and Pakistan) were supporting ISIS and other jihadi groups in the region.
“At the time, the US government was not admitting that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies were supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda-type movements. But in the leaked memo, which says that it draws on ‘Western intelligence, US intelligence and sources in the region’ there is no ambivalence about who is backing ISIS, which at the time of writing was butchering and raping Yazidi villagers and slaughtering captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers”, the article added.
Turkey has offered — and continues to do so — free passage to jihadists in Syria, opposes any attack on the last remaining ISIS stronghold of Idlib and has stepped up efforts to exterminate Kurdish groups, who are bitter opponents of the jihadists.
Today, the very Assad regime which was accused by the Western powers of being an unmitigated evil, has emerged as the sole sane regime in the region. Helped by Russia’s unstinting diplomatic and military assistance, President Assad has narrowly survived the invasion of the jihadist barbarians. President Trump’s decision to end the Syrian intervention will be best for the world but will leave many murky secrets locked up forever in government crypts.