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Slaying Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi



It was ghoulish and disturbing, but the Reality Television President had gotten his man, the infamous figure of Islamic State's Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 'Last night,' explained US President Donald Trump, 'the United States brought the world's number one terrorist to justice.'

Donald Trump announces on 27 October 2019 that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a military operation in northwest Syria. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Trump was also keen to impress his audience in the White House's Diplomatic Reception Room that he had gotten 'to watch much of it'. Here, al-Baghdadi seemed to reprise a previous villainous role: that played by Osama bin Laden, the recognisable face of Al-Qaeda. It was also similar in another respect: slaying the symbolic head might provide some form of catharsis, but it would hardly redress the logistic realities on the ground.

A raid by US special forces in the village of Barisha in northwest Syria eventually cornered the Islamic State leader. Al-Baghdadi is said to have taken his own life, along with those of three children, detonating an explosive vest in a tunnel. The Iraqi government took some credit. 'Following extensive work by a dedicated team for over a year, Iraq's National Intelligence Service was able to accurately pinpoint the hideout of the terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Syrian province of Idlib.'

The swathe of reaction in the US has ranged from unbridled delight to the usual cautions associated with waging interminable conflict. Contender for the Democratic presidential nomination Joe Biden hoped to sound vigilant; it is an election year, so keeping the spirits up in conflict is the thing to do. 'We cannot afford to get distracted or take our eye off the target. ISIS (Islamic State) remains a threat to the American people and our allies, and we must keep up the pressure to prevent ISIS from ever regrouping or again threatening the United States.'

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham came across as bloodthirstily triumphant. 'What the president said today was very reassuring to me — that when it comes to ISIS and other terrorist groups, we're coming after you, wherever you go, as long as it takes to protect our country and our way of life.' But the senator had good competition from colleague Mitt Romney, who suggested that al-Baghdadi, having 'spread "fire and brimstone" on earth', felt it now in hell. 'To all those who arranged his change of venue — the intel officers, the President, the warriors — thank you.'

Ties of blood, memory and causation run deep in the Middle East. Islamic State, and the workings of Al-Baghdadi, were never hermetic. They grew from the cobbling of faulty colonial designs such as the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which al-Baghdadi swore to eradicate, and the sporadic assistance, covert and overt, by powers claiming to fight it. Add sectarian inducing invasion such as that of Iraq by US-led forces in 2003, and civil war in Syria, and a perfect storm ensues.

Since then, efforts have been made to dismiss the Sykes-Picot agreement for being the cement and mortar of propagandists rather than the actual carvings out of the Middle East by France, Great Britain and Russia. 'For al-Qaeda,' suggests Middle Eastern historian James L. Gelvin, 'this conspiracy justifies its defensive jihad. For IS, it justifies an offensive jihad to re-establish a caliphate that, they anticipate, will eventually unite the entirety of the Islamic world.'


"With the US disengaging from Syria, and Turkey's invasion from the north to suppress and evict Kurdish fighters, Islamic State have reason to feel confident in regrouping."


Gelvin is only right to a point. In a geographical region teeming with symbolism and the rapacious effects of oil, entities like Islamic State have flourished, combining business, jihad and statecraft.

This explains, to some extent, the somewhat crass remark by Iran's information minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, made in the briefest of tweets to Trump: 'Not a big deal! You just killed your creature.' Ali Rabiei, Iranian government spokesman, added another tart reflection: 'The killing of Baghdadi will not end Daesh (Islamic State) and its ideology ... which was created and flourished with the help of regional petrodollars.'

Countries with patchy records in their dealings with Islamic State have also crooned over a demise they did little to encourage. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated the 'killing of Daesh's ringleader' as 'a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism', regarding the Kurdish YPG which had done more than most to fight the movement as equivalent terrorists. Often forgotten is the role played by Turkish negligence to arrest the rise of al-Baghdadi's movement, along with the fracturing of Iraq and the Syrian civil war.

With the US disengaging from Syria, and Turkey's invasion from the north to suppress and evict Kurdish fighters, Islamic State have reason to feel confident in regrouping. Captured fighters and their families have fled. In truth, there is much to suggest that the death of al-Baghdadi was ultimately irrelevant, much as bin Laden's was in May 2011. The relevantly dangerous activity was already taking place elsewhere. As the Pentagon inspector general's report noted in August this year, 'Despite losing its territorial "caliphate", the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was re-surging in Syria.'

So the killing promises to continue, with the protean monsters drawn from apocalyptic fantasy and political franchises that straddle the globe, ever replaceable with boundless resources of succour and strategic support in the interests of Realpolitik. The soil that brought forth Islamic State is far from barren. Those not in the boardrooms, in the pulpit, or at the summit tables, will continue to suffer most.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Donald Trump announces on 27 October 2019 that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a military operation in northwest Syria. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, al-Baghdadi, Islamic State, Osama bin Laden, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

One should make a James Bond film out of this only the terroist groups are like SMERSH or SPECTOR

Stuart Lawrence | 28 October 2019  

The world is a better place today now that the coward who planned and inspired so many murderous acts against innocents of a different belief from his own has gone to his reward.

john frawley | 28 October 2019  

Binoy, the theatre may have been more colourful but in reality no different to the elimination of Osama Bin Laden under Obama. Of course he's going to take the credit in an election year. He's missed out on the wall and the attempt to tarnish Biden blew up in his face. Im not sure whether the "protean monsters drawn from apocalyptic fantasy" is an accurate description. Both ISIS and ISIL creed is that the end justifies the means. "ISIL is widely known for its videos of beheadings and other types of executions of both soldiers and civilians, including journalists and aid workers, and its destruction of cultural heritage sites. The United Nations holds ISIL responsible for committing human rights abuses, crimes against peace, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. ISIL also committed ethnic cleansing on a historic and unprecedented scale in northern Iraq."Wikipedia. And its not a religious war when those of the Sunni sect go after their Shiite brothers as they did in the Sinjar massacre. They do purport to worship the same deity. Whether Abu Bakr is easily replaced remains to be seen.

francis Armstrong | 29 October 2019  

Trump's "smart-arse" comments about the demise of Al-Baghadi were typical of the triumphalism of the man. My reaction? how would Trump behave in the same situation? or even myself? Facing death is the ultimate fate of all of us. Bush Jnr, 's decision to disband the Iraqi military, the Sunni based intelligence and civil service after the fall of Saddam Hussein was a monumental miscalculation, as no doubt will be Trump's decision to withdraw American Forces from the Middle East. The colonial meddling in the Middle East by France, the U.K. and other European powers post World War I continues to impact the Western World centuries later.I fear we are continuing not to learn from our miscalculations. ISIS is certainly not dead. We need to be very vigilant as sleeper cells world wide react.

Gavin | 29 October 2019  

"The protean monsters drawn from apocalyptic fantasy and political franchises", indeed. And it behoves us also to look within the dysfunctionalities of our own cultural (and confessional) legacy for the same baneful end-of-days messianic fanaticism. And I do not mean just the neo-Nazis. As Orwell was supposed to have remarked at the end of WW2, Fascism won't die, and is likely to return worse than ever. The same can be said for Torquemada's Inquisition, if we don't do something substantial to address the motivating underground terrors afflicting every society at this juncture.

Frederick Green | 29 October 2019  

Having worked in many countries affected by atrocious wars associated with what is commented on here, I can only agree that the trauma and horror this has brought for millions of people is beyond deplorable. However, I agree with Gavin, that the situation is complicated, and has been exacerbated by international economic and political interests even before the start of this century. Some media reporting, and even what reads as light-heatedness give us little hope, especially when a Western President speaks of a man's death as that of a dog, and our own ABC requoting him chooses a headline "... he died like a dog". Such terminology is disgraceful and a gross insult. I do not romanticise what has happened, but gloating over deaths of al Baghdadi, bin Laden, al Gaddafi … with such headlines does nothing to address the situation of disaffected youth, where near forty percent have no hope of employment, and where governments, leaders, and even international assistance is seen as one-sided. I wonder if it is beyond us, to consider the word 'dignity' even when reporting death of criminals.

Adele Jones | 29 October 2019  

It demeans western civilisation as an upheld example of lofty principles of governance for state leaders to be watching in real time what is in effect a snuff movie, be it Obama, Biden and Hillary Clinton for Osama bin Laden or Trump for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Ordering a snuff can be statesmanlike. Watching it is petty and distasteful.

roy chen yee | 29 October 2019  

Binoy, it is good that you have written this comment on the ghoulish and sickening triumphalism of Donald Trump and his associates on the death of of Al-Baghadi. Before becoming too triumphant about the demise of a key figure in ISIS, we need to be aware of the circumstances of its origin. Some years ago in a revealing moment, Tony Blair - a key advocate of George Bush's war against Iraq - admitted that it was this war that greatly contributed to the formation of ISIS. A few years later when addressing university students in the US, former vice president Joe Biden admitted that the US had for some time cooperated with ISIS in the quest of the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Qatar to bring down the Assad government in Syria. For too long western nations like Britain, France and the US have used Middle Eastern nations for their own ends. key people who have played significant roles in this history are as culpable as ISIS for the mass killing and destruction. Australians should be telling our leaders that we do not want to be involved in such wars and we don't want US bases on our soil to be involved in such conflicts.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 31 October 2019  

I don't understand how 'ordering a snuff' (aka assassination, murder, or extra-judicial killing) can be considered 'statesmanlike'. Or why a hijacked airliner aimed at the Pentagon is a heinous crime but a missile launched at some desert headquarters is justified. Surely they are just both acts of war?

Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2019  

Dead right, Ginger. Nevertheless, I reckon this is one of the rare good outcomes of war.

john frawley | 01 November 2019  

Against what criteria is it a 'good outcome' John Frawley? What change for the good do you expect to see? Why will the outcome be any different from that which followed the assassination of Bin Laden? And what if the principal outcome (which was probably the principal objective) is the re-election of Trump to the Presidency?

Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2019  

“Surely they are just both acts of war?” The acts are not morally equivalent. There is no initial justification for flying a plane into a building full of civilians. The initial justification for the missile attack is that it was provoked by the prior war criminal-like activities of the operators of the base and its purpose is to stop them from continuing with those activities. As for ‘war’, even war has internationally accepted rules to govern how it is to be pursued. The extremists are not soldiers as such. They are similar to the violent free-lancers of the drug trade in Latin America and elsewhere. To be statesmanlike is for a political leader to do what is morally necessary at political cost. Given that political leaders in the West are made accountable by the open nature of Western societies populated by sceptics free to voice their disagreements without penalty to themselves, a ‘snuff’ by, say, Israel is more likely to be statesmanlike than a hit ordered by secretive leaders immune from political costs such as criticism or removal such as those found in China, Russia and most Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries.

roy chen yee | 02 November 2019  

May I suggest Roy that any judgement about 'moral equivalency' depends upon the viewpoint of the person making the judgement? As Adele says the situation is, to say the least, 'complicated'. Gavin rightly reminds us of the post WW1 meddling by Western powers (which includes the so-called 'police actions' by the RAF against Iraqi civilians in the inter-war period) and Andy reminds us of the 'culpability' of Bush, Howard and Blair for the consequences of their invasion of Iraq. One could easily see why someone on 'that' side could see come to a completely different conclusion about 'moral equivalence'.

Ginger Meggs | 04 November 2019  

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