At the end of June 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was announced as a caliph of all Muslims in a declaration that not only proclaimed a new “caliphate”, but also warned fellow believers in Islam that they must “pledge allegiance and support”.
Baghdadi, the latest leader of so-called Islamic State, had made a name for his group with a murderous reign of terror culminating in the shock fall of the city of Mosul into his hands a fortnight earlier. His claims about “crushing the idol of democracy” and defeating “agents of the crusaders and atheists, and the guards of the Jews” were followed by a campaign of genocide, slavery, rape and ultra-violence against Muslims primarily.
Baghdadi’s empire-building came to nothing when the “caliphate” collapsed in March this year. The world’s most-wanted terrorist ended his life as a fugitive who decided that he would kill himself rather than surrender to justice. He came to an ignominious end; reportedly cornered by US Special Forces, Baghdadi blew himself up in a tunnel in Syria, killing three of his children as well.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump could not resist the opportunity to make a series of questionable statements and promote himself. His claim that Baghdadi “died like a dog” was unpleasant, unnecessary and will cause unintended problems for the United States that will require undoing, especially in the Muslim world where canines are considered unclean. It would help first to get the facts straight, instead of shrouding them in the “fog of war”.
When Osama bin Laden was killed under the Obama administration in 2011, days after the event it had to offer an account that contradicted its previous assertions. There’s good reason to expect that the Trump White House might have to correct a few self-serving myths in the coming days. The fact that Baghdadi took his own life means that the policy of killing members of terrorist groups as part of America’s war on terror continues without the necessary and long overdue debate about the ethics and legality of targeted assassinations.
The US will need all the help it can get to defeat terrorism in the Middle East. The death of Baghdadi is a blow to Isis but not a mortal one. Following the loss of its citadels, it had become a loose, decentralised series of terrorist groupuscules, which allow followers to carry out its violent ideology on their own. Baghdadi was no fighter, he was an ideologue, and under him the Isis security and military apparatus had been mainly controlled, analysts thought, by a group of former Iraqi army officers.
To defeat Isis would require the Sunni community in the Levant to rise up against the organisation and its affiliates, as it did in 2007 in Iraq with the “sahawat” or “awakenings” of tribes who turned against terrorism. This is made more difficult with the chaos and instability in the region. From the protests in the streets of Iraq and Lebanon to the wars of Yemen and Libya, it seems that the “nation state” and its political system are witnessing a slow disintegration in many parts of the Middle East.
What is troubling is that instead of a global coalition being maintained against the threat of Isis, the linchpin of such an alliance – the US – is crippled by its commander-in-chief’s capricious nature. The extent of the group’s terrible reach can be gauged by the fact that more than 40,000 foreign fighters are thought to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups. The sociology of violence espoused by Isis has been exported abroad – with a spate of deadly attacks around the world last year. While the Middle East is embroiled in a vicious cycle of crisis, the world will be cursed by terrorism. There needs to be a serious attempt to transcend the religious, nationalist and ethnic schisms in the region. Economic and political modernisation, forgiveness and peace would help lay ghosts to rest. That is what the world needs to be working towards now.