Baghdadi Dies Yet Again

There are good reasons to doubt Trump’s account of his latest ‘triumph’

Trump was until his press conference on Sunday announcing that US Special Forces had killed Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib province. He basked in self-awarded triumph and behaved as though he had achieved a monumental victory, as though he had defeated the Soviet Union at the height of its power. Each and every one of his utterances and movements, even his facial gestures, were carefully calculated and pre-rehearsed.

The information Trump provided about the operation – including how Baghdadi, “crying, whimpering and screaming”, blew himself and several of his wives and children up in an escape tunnel – may have been true. But it may not have been. If we are to believe it, we will need some concrete visual evidence. The Russians, who Trump thanked for their cooperation, denied knowing anything about the operation and expressed their doubts about whether Baghdadi had indeed been killed. The Syrians, who Trump also indicated had been cooperative, ridiculed the notion. Tracking Baghdadi is the last of their priorities right now, and in any case, the Syrian army exerts no control over Idlib. Perhaps Trump confused the Syrian government with the Syrian opposition, which would not be surprising.

Trump is a professional liar. His statements and tweets are replete with untruths. This may be just another of his fabrications – like the purported killing of Hamza Bin-Laden, unaccompanied by any evidence or photographs – aimed at crediting him with some ‘victory’ that diverts attention from his overall failure in Syria and projects him as a hero to his electorate. And never forget his obsession with one-upping his predecessor Barack Obama. Obama killed Usama Bin-Laden, so here is Trump killing the even more dreaded ISIS chief.

When the Americans killed Saddam Hussein’s sons Udai and Qusai, they displayed their corpses for the world’s press to see. They also ensured that video footage of their father’s hanging was leaked to the media. They placed the body of Libya’s murdered leader Muammar al-Qadhafi’s body in a refrigerated container for ‘viewing’ until the stench got too strong. So why haven’t they shown us footage of their three most prized and celebrated trophies, Usama and Hamza Bin-Laden and Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi?

I have followed al-Qaida and ISIS closely as a journalist for a long time, and one thing they always do is issue official statements confirming the death of their commanders — if only to fulfil their religious obligation to inform the families, facilitate inheritance procedures and permit their wives to remarry if they choose.

But unlike Bush Jr.’s administration, Obama’s and Trump’s never showed us pictures of their trophies. Their burial places are unknown. This suggests that they have something to hide, and we may not learn the truth about it for decades.

Even if Baghdad was indeed killed, that is unlikely to have much effect on Daesh. He was more of a figurehead than a hands-on leader of the organisation, even when it had seven million people, thousands of fighters and 240,000 square kilometres of territory under its control. The destruction of his ‘Caliphate’ and the killing or capture of 13,000 of his troops certainly did not enhance his stature.

Baghdadi had none of the charisma of his original mentor Usama Bin-Laden. He only ever made two videotaped appearances: the first when he proclaimed his Caliphate in Mosul in 2014, and the second four years later when he appealed to his followers to fight on against the Americans and their allies after its collapse.

Baghdadi has been killed four times before, according to official US statements. On each of those occasions, the Russians correctly refuted the claim, so we are inclined to believe them this fifth time.

Even if Baghdadi indeed met his end in the gruesome way described, that will not be the end of ISIS. The collapse of al-Qaeda led to the emergence of two even more extreme groups: ISIS and the Nusra Front. The same may happen again, given the fertile territory for a re-emergence that exists in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

If Baghdadi’s killing is confirmed, his followers can be expected to mount revenge attacks in various parts of the world, especially the US and Western Europe. He may also be transformed into a legend, especially if the story of him killing himself to avoid capture takes hold.

One ISIS follower I interviewed while researching my book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate told me that if the Caliphate were destroyed, its followers would go underground, from where they could operate more freely and ferociously as they would no longer have to bear the costly burden of looking after a large civilian population. He also said that if its leader were killed, the group’s response would resemble an earthquake.

Could this happen now, after Baghdadi’s fifth reported killing? Will the US, which many accuse of being behind the establishment of Daesh in the first place, and many credits for its eventual destruction, prove to be the engineer of its renaissance?

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