On Oct. 27, U.S. Special Forces conducted a dangerous but extraordinarily effective raid resulting in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, without suffering a single casualty. Hours later, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, spokesman for the terror group, was killed in a precision U.S. airstrike.
The Trump administration deserves credit for destroying Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate,” which at its zenith occupied territory in Iraq and Syria roughly the size of Great Britain. The U.S. military succeeded by arming our Syrian Kurdish allies, lifting the cap on the number of American troops in Syria, and giving battlefield commanders more autonomy on how to fight the fight.
The al-Baghdadi raid was a product of our post 9/11 counterterrorism strategy: leveraging international partners, in this case the Kurds, who reportedly ran a source inside the terror leader’s inner circle; tactical intelligence on the enemy and his location; and a forward-deployed U.S. military presence.
But the war against ISIS is far from over.
In spite of successful decapitation strikes against al-Baghdadi’s predecessors, including the notorious Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2006, Islamic State has repeatedly managed to regroup. A decentralized terrorist group with insurgent roots, ISIS has spawned affiliates from Libya to Afghanistan and launched high-profile attacks in a variety of places, including Strasbourg, France, Sri Lanka and San Bernardino, California.
Al-Baghdadi was responsible for severing the group’s relationship with al Qaeda in 2013, after al Qaeda’s Syrian faction, the al-Nusra Front, rejected al-Baghdadi’s merger demand. New ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi might seek a cease-fire, if not a union, with the rival Islamist group.
There are reportedly 18,000 ISIS fighters still at large as well, along with roughly 10,000 ISIS jihadists, including 2,000 foreign fighters, whom the Kurds are detaining. Failed governance, endemic corruption and sectarian violence constitute the petri dish in which ISIS grows with impunity.
Islamic State’s gruesome violence is medieval, but its savvy internet use shows cutting-edge 21st century technique. Al-Baghdadi’s past media appearances, starting with his first recorded public statement in July 2014 from the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, shortly after the declaration of the “worldwide caliphate,” will continue to attract jihadists across the globe.
Every player has its own angle in the fight. Taking advantage of its safe haven in Iran and Syria, al Qaeda attacked the U.S. military following the invasion of Iraq. Iran’s Machiavellian mullahs exploited the sectarian violence to drive local Shiites into the arms of Iran’s proxy militia groups, strengthening Tehran’s grip on Iraq.
Turkey has targeted Syrian Kurds, whom they regard as an existential threat. Iran, Syria and Russia have targeted Syrian opposition forces, with indiscriminate collateral damage to innocent civilians.
Al-Baghdadi was hiding in Idlib, a few miles from smuggling routes on the Syria’s artificial border with Turkey, established after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Syrian and Turkish forces have reportedly clashed in the villages of Darbasiyah and Tal Tamr. Syrian Kurds have turned to Syrian President Bashar Assad for protection.
Russians have a saying, “Svoya rubashka blizhe k telu” — one’s own shirt is closest to one’s skin. Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey lack the capability and the will to finish the fight against ISIS. Without indispensable leadership, intelligence and military firepower from Washington, the ISIS “caliphate” would still exist and al-Baghdadi would be alive.
The Pentagon’s “by, with, through” strategy relies on local partners to conduct ground fighting with U.S. training, logistical support and airstrikes. The U.S. deploys the minimal footprint necessary to accomplish the mission, which does not include the quixotic task of transforming these failed states into peaceful democracies.
The United States is still in Islamic State’s crosshairs. We learned from 9/11 that terrorists plot against us from ungoverned space.
Until the endemic causes of terrorism are eliminated, we run the risk of reaping what the Middle East sows, if the forward-deployed U.S. military does not continue to eliminate terrorist threats before they arrive on our shores.
Relying solely on self-interested regional powers risks our nation’s security. Without continued U.S. leadership from the bully pulpit and battlefield, we risk suffering the consequences.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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