The Islamic State was well prepared for the eventual loss of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and is probably already taking steps to fill the vacuum left by his death at the hands of US special operations forces over the weekend, analysts warned. on Sunday. as attention turned to the next phase of the fight.
President Trump announced on Sunday that al-Baghdadi died "whining and crying" inside a tunnel in Idlib province in northwestern Syria when US troops shut down his compound. He detonated a suicide vest that claimed his life as well as the life of his wife and three of his children.
Al-Baghdadi was a shadowy figure who presided over the rise of ISIS five years ago in a powerful religious caliphate that controlled large areas of Iraq and Syria and boasted tens of thousands of well-trained terrorist fighters. His death marks a major victory in the US war against the group and represents a significant foreign policy victory for Trump.
"Last night, the United States brought the world's number one terrorist leader to justice," the president said in comments from the White House. He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place. "
But analysts, military officials and parliamentarians have warned that al-Baghdadi's death creates a whole new set of national security challenges, including the risk of ISIS attacking a series of terrorist attacks, the potential for the group to continue its similar secret network transition. to al Qaeda in the years following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the chance that al-Baghdadi's successor would try to make peace with al-Qaeda in the hope of forming a terrorist supergroup in the Middle East.
The US attack on al-Baghdadi's hideout also raises new questions about the continued role of US forces in Syria.
Trump ordered troops this month to leave northern Syria in the face of a Turkish military attack against the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but national security and political security officials acknowledged on Sunday that an American presence inside the country – and the US partnership with the SDF, which provided valuable insight into al-Baghdadi's location – made the attack possible.
The US still has a small number of forces stationed in Syria, and Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed over the weekend that US military assets will protect oil fields in northeastern Syria to prevent the Islamic State from using them as source of revenue.
Maintaining pressure on ISIS and its 10,000 trained fighters would be much easier with US forces in Syria, analysts say.
"Getting the intelligence that will lead to such attacks will be harder" without US forces there, said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident colleague of the American Enterprise Institute who studies terrorist groups.
Zimmerman said the Islamic State and other Islamic organizations have developed complex command and control structures and have a process to install new leaders quickly, meaning the group is unlikely to return to history with al-Baghdadi's death.
"We have to assume that the Islamic State is prepared for Baghdadi's death," she said. “They are ready for this transition. Baghdadi was wearing a suicide vest, which means he was prepared not to be carried alive by Americans or others. There are all these indicators that the organization was ready for this succession. "
The president was notified Thursday afternoon that there was a "high probability" that al-Baghdadi was in a complex in Syria's Idlib province, Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News Sunday.
"At that moment, President Trump asked our military leadership to develop options. He received those options on Friday morning," said Pence.
He said Trump decided on Saturday morning to proceed with the operation.
“Watching this attack take place in real time [in the Situation Room] made me so proud to be American, proud to see our special forces, her extraordinary courage and professionalism, and I also mean very proud to be a vice president to a president. who acted so resolutely in overthrowing a man who was a threat to this country and a threat to the world as an ISIS leader, ”said Pence.
The end of al-Baghdadi's reign could open new opportunities for the organization, analysts said. Al-Baghdadi, who resurfaced in a video message in April after not being seen for almost five years, opposed an ISIS alliance with al Qaeda.
Their death can cause a radical change in group relationships. Analysts noted that al-Baghdadi was hidden in Idlib province, an area of Syria that is known as an al Qaeda paradise.
"A jihadist fusion can still occur," wrote Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Caitlin Forrest, researchers at the Institute for the Study of War, in an article published on Sunday. “Baghdadi's refusal to accept mediation for his dispute with al Qaeda has prevented further cooperation between the groups after 2014. His successor may be more willing to consider unification, even if limited and pragmatic. Baghdadi's location in Syria's al Qaeda-dominated Idlib province may indicate that even he has begun to reconsider a collaborative relationship with al Qaeda. Baghdadi's death is certainly an important victory in the fight against jihadist terror, but this fight is far from over. "
ISIS still claims at least 14 "provinces" in the Middle East and Africa, the institute said, with backing bases in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere.
Defeat an ideology
Trump administration officials acknowledge that the fight will continue, but emphasize that they have made big gains in recent years.
"We beat the physical caliphate earlier this year and now the leader is dead," Esper said on Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "Let's watch carefully … and as a new leader and leaders appear, we will also chase them."
Esper said "it is difficult to defeat an ideology," highlighting the profound challenges that persist even after the US and its allies deprived ISIS of virtually all of its physical territory.
Lawmakers on both sides praised the attack and bravery of US men and women in uniform and said al-Baghdadi's death was an important milestone in the year-long fight against ISIS.
"This morning's announcement should confirm to the world what many already knew – that terrorists cannot last longer than the commitment of the US counterterrorism apparatus. We will not stop or falter in destroying terrorist leaders wherever they hide," he said. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, in a …