GOOD riddance, unequivocally. The man who adopted the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was by most accounts a monster of depravity. The mindless brutality of the outfit he presided over is incontestable, and it conforms with multiple testimonies about his personal predilections, including a reputation as a serial rapist. It does not follow, of course, that the account of his final moments offered by the US president deserves to be taken at face value. Donald Trump simply cannot help uttering untruths almost every time he opens his mouth, so it’s possible his insistence that the cornered quarry was “whimpering” and “screaming” before he detonated his suicide vest in a dead-end tunnel was a product of the presidential imagination.
He was, after all, barely able to pronounce Baghdadi’s name while taking full credit for the hunt. He also claimed that access to real-time video in the White House Situation Room (right after a Saturday afternoon bout of golf, mind you) was like watching a movie, even though the aerial footage being transmitted depicted only heat signatures in the dark and could not possibly have penetrated the tunnel. His defence secretary as well as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, both of whom were present in the Situation Room, refused to corroborate Trump’s narrative. Trump could not conceivably have had access by that point to video footage from cameras worn by special forces commandos, and it is in fact not even clear whether any of them witnessed Baghdadi’s explosive exit. Only a military dog, described by the commander-in-chief as “talented” and “beautiful” (although its name is classified information), is said to have been seriously injured when the leader of the Islamic State, in the president’s parlance, “died like a dog”. Even his animal instincts are contradictory.
There are contested versions of where the crucial evidence for locating Baghdadi’s hideout in Syria’s northern Idlib province came from, with both the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi authorities claiming credit, amid other indications that the information pinpointing Baghdadi’s refuge — possibly owned by the leader of a separate group associated with Al Qaeda — was derived from the interrogation of one of his wives (two others are said to have been killed during the operation, with their suicide vests intact) and a courier.
It is likely that the facts, for what they are worth, will continue to be contested for a long time to come. Russia, which was on the top of Trump’s list of acknowledgements when he recited his version of events on Monday, has expressed its doubts about the operation. The Russians, who control the airspace in the Idlib region, were seemingly informed about the mission but not its target.
The US congressional Democratic leadership, meanwhile, is livid that it was even further out of the loop than Moscow. Trump has said that House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi and intelligence committee chief Adam Schiff were not informed in advance because the latter in particular is a notorious leaker. The implication that the Democrats would directly or indirectly alerted IS to the raid is absurd, of course, but also a reminder of how deep the partisan divide in Washington has become.
Trump’s critics have been quick to link his declaration of a US withdrawal from Syria to the complications in the mission against Baghdadi, but what’s perhaps more pertinent is that US forces are staying in the country to ‘protect’ oil wells that, the president says, may prove profitable to US firms, yet were unwilling to maintain a minimal presence that might have dissuaded Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan from invading northern Syria in his vendetta against the Kurds.
It is also useful to remember in this context that IS was effectively incubated by the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It grew out of the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda, whose sectarian brutality appalled even Osama bin Laden (a less valuable target than Baghdadi, according to Trump, largely because his extinction was organised by the Obama administration) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (who remains at large).
Baghdadi is a graduate not only of what was then known as Saddam University but also of Camp Bucca, the US military prison that a disproportionately large number of Iraqi jihadists passed through at the cusp of the millennium.
Al Qaeda did not perish with bin Laden, the rather more measured account of whose end has also been disputed, not least by Seymour Hersh. Hardly any analyst is willing to argue that the demise of Baghdadi spells the end of IS, which in all too many cases represents a state of mind, related more often than not to US foreign policy.
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