The Assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former caliph of the Islamic State, was assassinated by United States special forces at the weekend. He was discovered in a compound in Barisha in the Idlib province of northern Syria a few miles from the Turkish border. The raiding party took off from an airbase in Anbar in Iraq in eight helicopters. The special forces team blew the side off the building in which Baghdadi had been staying (apparently for some time). The US claims he killed himself by detonating an explosive vest. The soldiers brought back pieces of the corpse and confirmed it was him with biometric tests.
Donald Trump announced many of the operational particulars personally, including details of Baghdadi’s last moments that Trump is unlikely to have known. He also thanked the Russian, Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Syrian Kurdish governments for their co-operation. Baghdadi took great efforts to ensure his personal security; the task became more difficult after IS lost the ability to hold and govern territory in 2018. The CIA effort to track him down appears to have been aided by the capture of one or two of his deputies. Iraqi intelligence say that Ismail al-Ithawi gave them information about Baghdadi’s habits. The capture of Abu Suleiman al-Khalidi by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, may also have helped lead to the Barisha raid.
Baghdadi was born in the Samarra countryside in Iraq to a family of pastoral farmers who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad. As a young man he had been an aloof theology student and football coach. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq he was imprisoned for ten months in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. He emerged a fanatic of the jihadist insurgency. In 2006 the US assassinated the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s successor was assassinated by the US in April 2010. Baghdadi took control of the group a month later.
His death does not spell the end of IS. In rural Iraq and eastern Syria it still engages in extortion, raiding and kidnapping. Its affiliates in West Africa and Egypt are still dangerous. The US claims to be tracking six potential Baghdadi successors. In August, the State Department offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the capture of three IS leaders. In the Arabic press there are reports that Baghdadi had appointed one of his deputies, Abdullah Qardash, to take over directing the group’s operations. Like Baghdadi, Qardash is a former detainee of Camp Bucca.