President Donald Trump Sunday announced the death of Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during an overnight raid led by US military forces in Syria, a major victory as he fights a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry. Trump said Baghdadi killed himself by igniting his suicide vest.
Earlier in the day, Trump put out a cryptic tweet saying “something very big has just happened!” Although no specifics were available officially, multiple international media organisations had reported that US Special Operations commandos had successfully carried out a raid in northwestern Syria against a top terrorist leader.
Something very big has just happened!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2019
Explained: Who was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
The leader of the Islamic State was often described as the most wanted individual in the world. The United States designated him a terrorist some eight years ago, and declared a bounty of $10 million (more than Rs 70 crore) on his head.
Baghdadi, who was believed to have been born in Iraq perhaps in 1971, proclaimed himself Caliph of the Islamic State in 2013.
He made his first known public appearance the following year, delivering a Ramadan sermon at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul in northern Iraq, at which the Islamic State declared itself to be a worldwide Caliphate with al-Baghdadi at its head. The best known among the ISIS leader’s few publicly available pictures are from a video of this sermon at the al-Nuri mosque.
When and how did Baghdadi become the world’s most feared terrorist?
In early 2014, al-Baghdadi’s fighters had taken control over western Iraq, and over the next year and a half, the Islamic State ran a sweeping campaign of terror and brutality across a vast swathe of Iraq and Syria, terrifying the world with grisly videos of beheadings and shaking up governments everywhere.
By the end of 2015, it had control over an estimated 8-12 million people over which it imposed an unforgiving version of Sharia law, attracting jihadists from across the world, including a few from India.
The terrorist organisation and empire that Baghdadi headed was estimated at the time to have been the size of Great Britain, with an annual budget of over a billion dollars and an army of more than 30,000 jihadists.
The ISIS started to weaken from 2016 onward as the international coalition, backed by regional allies including, most importantly, Syrian Kurdish peshmerga fighters, gained ground in Syria and Iraq.
As the formal structure of ISIS crumbled, thousands of its fighters went underground, even though local groups continued to carry out isolated terrorist incidents across the world in the name of ISIS and al-Baghdadi. Among the biggest of these attacks were carried out in Paris in November 2015, and in Sri Lanka in 2019.
So, when was al-Baghdadi last seen?
In the beginning of the summer this year, al-Furqan, the media wing of the ISIS, posted a video on the Internet which showed, in the words of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks the online activity of ISIS and other jihadist groups, the “reemergence (of Baghdadi) in visual form” after his first video appearance in July 2014.
The publication of the video was preceded by a build-up by ISIS-linked channels, promoting what would be the first video from al-Furqan Media Foundation since 2016.
In the 18-minute video, Baghdadi was seen sitting crosslegged on the floor, leaning on a cushion with an assault rifle to his right.
He looked a little heavier than the man seen delivering a sermon at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, nearly five years ago. His beard was a lot more grey than in the 2014 video, and hennaed from about halfway to the tips.
Al-Baghdadi described the attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter as revenge for the defeat in Al-Baghuz Fawqani in Syria, which was taken from ISIS in late March — the last remaining bit of territory of the Islamic proto-state he once ruled.
And why did ISIS release the 2019 video?
According to experts quoted in multiple media reports, al-Baghdadi was forced to reveal himself in order to underline that the military defeat notwithstanding, ISIS continued to exist and he remained its emir, and to warn that its fighters would keep staging attacks indefinitely.
Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for The New York Times and is perhaps the best informed journalist on the terrorist organisation, posted on Twitter: “Baghdadi has always maintained an extreme security protocol, which explains how he’s stayed alive since 2010, when he became emir of the Islamic State of Iraq.”
He had taken “the enormous risk of showing his current appearance to rally his followers”, she suggested, “perhaps because the terror organization he leads is at an inflection point”.
According to a translation of the video provided by SITE, Baghdadi said: “Our battle today is a battle of attrition, and we will prolong it for the enemy; they must know that the jihad will continue until Judgment Day.”
What does Baghdadi’s killing by the US now mean?
It must be remembered that there have been multiple alerts about his death earlier. In June 2017, Russia claimed he had been killed in an airstrike near Raqqa, Syria; two weeks later, the mostly reliable Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported “confirmed information” that al-Baghdadi was dead.
The 2019 video proved, however, that he was neither dead nor crippled.
Baghdadi’s location in the last video was not known. He had released an audio message in 2018, but his location was not clear then, either.
Multiple US agencies were hunting him, and some analysts believed he was hiding in the sparsely populated desert along the Iraq-Syria border, using no electronic devices that would give him away. The reports on Sunday said US special forces had tracked him down in northwestern Syria.
Should Baghdadi’s elimination be confirmed, it would mark the bringing to justice of one of the biggest terrorist killers of modern times and the successful conclusion of a massive international manhunt.
However, as experts such as Callimachi have repeatedly underlined, it will not necessarily mark the end of ISIS itself, which though fragmented and no longer easily visible, is far from dead.
In an interview given to The Indian Express soon after she finished her reporting assignment in Baghuz, Callimachi had said: “…ISIS lives on and today it is much stronger than it was in 2011, when American troops pulled out of Iraq and the group was considered defeated. At that point, CIA estimated that the group had just 700 fighters. Now according to General Joseph Votel [the top US general overseeing military operations in the Middle East], it has tens of thousands of fighters, and is present as a physical insurgency in Iraq and Syria and remains as deadly and as destructive a terrorist forces as it was.”
Besides its thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has a Khorasan province and provinces in the Philippines and West Africa, Callimachi said, and it was “strong and growing in Afghanistan”.
“These are groups that are robust on the ground and there is enough evidence to suggest that there is connective tissue between the affiliates and ISIS’s core group in Iraq and Syria.”
Baghdadi is dead, but his terror may yet live.