The news alert screamed “Baghdadi dead.” This was not the first time this has been claimed, but this time it appeared to be true, as President Donald Trump today announced the results of the US Special Forces raid near Idlib in Syria.
For one, it is not too long ago that we were celebrating another victory that was supposedly to prove fatal to transnational extremism: The killing of Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama, in his speech announcing that operation, described it as “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda.” In reality, although Bin Laden’s death provided a morale boost to the US, it had little practical effect on Al-Qaeda. The more significant achievements were the result of the continuous efforts at disrupting its networks and communications, and defeating its plots.
That continuous effort included the harrying of Al-Qaeda’s Iraq operation, which was founded by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in 2002 and affiliated to Al-Qaeda a few years later. In successive operations from 2006 to 2010, the leaders (starting with Al-Zarqawi) were picked off and its cells dismantled. By 2010, when Al-Baghdadi took over what was to become Daesh, it was a husk of a group, holding no territory and rejected by those it had previously ruled by terror.
Were it not for the chaos in Syria that began in the spring of 2011, allied to the sectarian repression in Iraq under the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, it might well have remained as little more than an organized crime syndicate with pretentions of glory. But Al-Baghdadi seized the opportunities that he saw before him, sending a group into Syria, formally splitting from Al-Qaeda in 2013, and breaching the Iraqi border and seizing much of the north of the country in 2014, before declaring his “caliphate.”
These actions — combining an assault on the territorial integrity of states, the sponsoring of global terror, and a religio-political claim to be the authority over all Muslims — made the regional and global response inevitable. Despite the array of forces ranged against Al-Baghdadi’s group (now with a universal claim in its chosen name of “the Islamic State,” but widely known by the Arabic acronym “Daesh”), it still managed to hold remnants of territory right up until earlier this year.
So we have claimed victory before and have been proved wrong. The reason is that we are not fighting a conventional enemy, nor even just a local militia, but rather a global idea: One that existed before Bin Laden and will exist after Al-Baghdadi. Military action is necessary, but not sufficient.
We have claimed victory before and have been proved wrong. The reason is that we are not fighting a conventional enemy, but rather a global idea.
The power of the idea can be seen in the actions of the “hisba” squads in the prison camps that contain Daesh prisoners. Many of the individuals in these squads traveled from overseas to join the supposed caliphate because it was the “will of God.” The power of the ideology over them is such that, even though the “caliphate” has suffered military defeat to the point of territorial nonexistence and despite the fact that its leaders have been killed one by one — despite, in other words, that its existence was manifestly not the will of God — they still hold on to it. And, holding on to it, they continue their murderous activities, convinced that anyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong, but deserving of death.
These remnants are disciplined and determined. The chaos of Syria and Iraq — and the other countries whose upheavals Daesh had exploited and exacerbated — has not gone away. Experience shows us that President Trump and others who have proclaimed the “defeat” of Daesh, and who will hail the death of Al-Baghdadi as the end of his group, are wrong.
There are two things that are essential if we actually want to defeat Daesh and the other groups that follow its poisonous ideology.
The first is to take seriously the link between regional chaos and global terror. Just as a petri dish does not create bacterial cultures but nurtures them, civil wars do not create extremism, but they do give it opportunities to coalesce and organize; just look at Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Nigeria. When regional and global governments ignore the problem and seek to act through proxies, or directly but with insufficient force, they will further the conditions in which the extremist infection spreads.
The second is to take seriously the link between nonviolent and violent extremist ideologies. My definition is that extremism consists of a desire to impose a belief, ideology or values system on others to the exclusion of all other views by indoctrination, force or seeking to control government. Where it is violent, it must be countered by military and police action. But extremist violence does not spring from a vacuum: It comes from a view of the world that holds that only that view is legitimate and state action should be taken to enforce it. It is a short step from there, when extremists do not see states acting as they would wish, to taking action to enforce it themselves.
Without more investment in tackling nonviolent extremism, we will always be one step behind in tackling violent extremism. And the world will express the same shock and sorrow when another Al-Baghdadi arises, over and over again.