A screenshot of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who appeared on video for the first time in five years last April. (YouTube)

Experts: Counterterror Strategies Must Go beyond Elimination of Leaders

‘We have yet to address the root causes of terror. What are the factors that drive people to extremism and help mobilize alienated, disgruntled youth?’

Several terrorism researchers, analysts and academics agree that the death of Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is significant, yet the long-term United States counterterrorism strategy in the Middle East continues to fail.

US Special Forces were chasing Baghdadi in a tunnel in Syria’s Idlib Province overnight between October 26 and 27 when he detonated the suicide vest he was wearing, killing himself and at least two children.

“Think about it: If a guy is hiding in a tunnel with kids, he’s definitely no longer running a global terrorism organization,” Kenneth Pope, a University of Mississippi intelligence studies professor, told The Media Line.

“He used to be the hunter; now he’s the hunted,” he stated.

US President Donald Trump said in a nationally televised announcement the day after Baghdadi’s death: “He died like a dog…. He died like a coward.”

Michael Howell, a background investigator for the defense contractor Perspecta, told The Media Line that the humiliating language coming from the president was important to note.

“This imagery was used in an attempt to weaken ISIS’s morale by ruining a vision of a powerful caliphate and leader so that potential recruits of the terrorist organization will think twice before joining,” he said.

“Baghdadi’s death not only brings justice for so many, it also crippled the strategic and recruitment strategy of the organization,” he added.

Howell completed his undergraduate thesis at the University of Mississippi on reducing ISIS recruitment via social media. He is not the only one to notice the dignity, or lack thereof, in Baghdadi’s death.

“The method of his death sends a pretty strong message that even the leader was willing to take the same way out [as less-heroic members of the group have],” Wesley Yates, a former US Navy intelligence analyst, told The Media Line. “It’s definitely different than [al-Qaida leader] Osama bin Laden being shot.”

Dr. Mia Bloom, a professor of communications and Middle Eastern studies at Georgia State University, said that people “feel better” when a terrorist leader is assassinated.

“But the ideology has metastasized in such a way that it has spread to Asia and Africa with affiliate groups,” she added. “The loss of Baghdadi, who was more of a figurehead, doesn’t mean the group ends.”

Experts differ in their assessments of Baghdadi’s significance for global terrorism.

Pope calls him “a terrorist of the worst kind” while others see his role as more limited, although most agree that he was indeed a terrorist despite rhetorical mishaps, such as The Washington Post calling him an “austere religious scholar.”

Ashleen Williams, senior Barksdale Fellow at the University of Mississippi who has done fieldwork in Qatar, Yemen and Bahrain, says he nevertheless left a legacy.

Baghdadi, she told The Media Line, “opened up the possibility for other actors to very possibly do the same as he did, demonstrating the ability of an organization to fulfill a role that was needed in a power vacuum.”

At one point, Bloom notes, ISIS was a functioning state.

“It’s the worst of what terrorist groups generally have done, but [ISIS is] a small group, not as popular as al-Qaida globally, and wasn’t able to commit an attack like 9/11,” she said. “Definitely not as influential and successful, but still very important in the sense that it [ISIS] was able to hold territory for quite some time, and it showed how quickly it was able to take over Iraq after the United States had put so much money into [the country].”

The US and many other nations have been fighting the so-called war on terror for nearly two decades now, and no end is in sight.

“We don’t really have a Middle East policy,” Bloom said. “We have a lot of reactions via ‘tweet,’ but not a coherent State Department. We need to figure out the US’s interests and how we support those.”

She mentions American priorities in the wake of Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria, where Kurds, longtime allies of the US, live.

“There have been a lot of calls not to abandon our allies in the Middle East, and not just because of the oil,” she said, adding that Washington must do a lot of work regarding its relationships in the Middle East before moving forward with a broader counterterrorism strategy.

“I think in many ways, the Middle East is more dangerous now than it ever has been,” she said. “But one of the things that would really take the air out of the jihadis’ rhetoric is resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Dr. Emile Nakleh, director of the University of New Mexico’s Global and National Security Policy Institute, has been tracking US counterterrorism successes since his retirement from the CIA during the administration of president George W. Bush.

Nakleh includes the announcement of Baghdadi’s death as part of a trilogy of successes, along with the 2006 killing of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, and the 2011 killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, yet told The Media Line that the US must develop a more effective and deeper strategic policy.

“The question goes beyond [these successes],” he said. “We have yet to address the root causes of terror. What are the factors that drive people to extremism and help mobilize alienated, disgruntled youth?”

Several other experts are asking similar questions, hinting that perhaps traditional military counterterrorism shouldn’t be the conversation after all.

“The reality is that we haven’t been willing to address some of the more systemic issues that contribute to people choosing to use violence as a means for political activism, and I don’t think one man’s [Baghdadi’s] death changes that,” Williams said. “We are always focused on the urgent, and not the important.”

According to Pope, the problem is very complex.

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to convince people of this ideology that terrorism is not the answer, and I think that until a lot of governments in the Middle East change, that’s probably not going to happen,” he said.

Yates, the former naval intelligence figure, cautions that quiet within the US should not be a yardstick.

“The [US counterterrorism] failure is much more systemic and widespread as far as the stability of the [Middle Eastern] region,” he said. “But it’s taking one step forward, two steps back. I mean, the lack of attacks on the United States is a sign of success, but are we containing the threat of terrorism within the [Middle Eastern] region?”

The “kingpin” approach – identifying senior figures for targeted killings – might be effective, but it’s not the ultimate solution, says Yates.

“Even if we are able to help fix structural conditions that could limit their ability to recruit – that’s something we can definitely do – I don’t think we’ll be able to do away with their ideology,” he said. “It’s easy to talk about the conditions that allow for recruitment for terrorism, but it’s not the poor and uneducated becoming the leaders of these organizations.”

All of which raises questions: After Baghdadi’s death, what next? And is the caliphate truly gone?

“Intelligence professionals have probably already started working on the next target, because now you’ve got a potential power vacuum for leadership, and who’s likely to take that over?” Yates said.

Bloom, for her part, wonders about mergers.

“The worry isn’t just an [ISIS] 2.0 – it’s unification between the remaining terrorist groups,” she said, referring specifically to Boko Haram and the Taliban.

And Nakleh looks far beyond.

“While Baghdadi’s death is a psychological blow to ISIS, in reality it will not affect the operational side of its affiliated networks across the Muslim world,” he said. “These plans for terror will continue regardless of whether a leader is dead or alive.”

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