The Unearned Baghdadi Victory Lap
The news this past week regarding the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been celebrated thoroughly by the United States and particularly President Trump, whose only negative comments have been that he is not receiving enough personal credit for the operation. While it is a good thing that a man like al-Baghdadi, a serial murderer and rapist leading one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world, is dead there are a couple of reasons that the United States and President Trump should not be celebrating as much as they are.
First, there is the main problem with decapitating a terrorist organization's leadership that has proven itself time and again - there will always be somebody to step into the leadership role. ISIS has many fighters that have sworn allegiance to the organization and there is a defined hierarchy at the top. Like in any other type of organization, when one leader steps down or is removed there will always be a deputy that will be able to claim the mantle of leadership. But the succession of leadership presents another problem - if multiple people lay claim to the title of head of the organization then it risks fracturing the organization and creating an internal power struggle. While some may say that it is a good thing for there to be an internal power struggle within ISIS because it will prevent the group from focusing on its external operations, this is incorrect. Terrorist organizations are easiest to fight when they are highly centralized, bureaucratic organizations because it creates a target that is easy to identify and combat. A terrorist organization that is highly decentralized is far more difficult to combat because it can work in smaller units that have an easier time hiding from authorities, require less money to maintain, and require less communication with other members of the organization. Additionally, if ISIS were to lack a clear leader at the top, it could splinter into several smaller organizations each headed by its own warlord that would compete with each other for territory and ultimately cause more death and destruction for the citizens that are caught up in the violence. For an example of this look at what has happened to violent crime in Mexico between the cartels after decades of the Mexican authorities trying to take them down by taking out their leadership at the top.
Second, Trump's speech announcing the death of al-Baghdadi was not helpful because rather than showing restraint and simply informing the American public of his death, he went into grotesque detail and humiliated him. This speech will be used by ISIS propagandists to recruit more disaffected young men in the Middle East that are susceptible to extremism to their cause by portraying it in a way that shows Trump's (and by extension America's) supposedly violent tendencies towards Muslims and delight in taking them out through military operations. It would not be remotely difficult for an ISIS recruiter to take short clips out of Trump's rambling, incoherent speech and turn it into a video that makes it seem like all Americans have it out for Muslims, rather than just one evil man in particular. Rather than gloating about killing terrorist leaders through military operations, the United States would do far better in trying to combat the root causes of terrorism by providing economic aid to Middle Eastern governments to improve job opportunities so they do not feel like they have to engage in militant activities.
In order to improve their image in the Islamic world and really contribute to defeating ISIS, the United States would do better to try to tackle the issues that cause people to join ISIS. This includes not only providing economic support for Middle Eastern governments, but also removing US troops that are stationed in areas of the region that cause great consternation among the young Muslims susceptible to radicalization, in particular Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has purchased more than enough advanced weaponry to defend itself in a war and does not need a large US military presence within its borders to keep itself safe. The United States must realize that ISIS is built on an idea that cannot be bombed into submission and must instead work to rehabilitate its image in the region and make itself less of a target for radical Islamic organizations.