TLDRUpFront: The President’s statements on the death of al-Baghdadi and accompanying analysis. Split into “Just the Facts” and “Analysis” portions.
Just the Facts Analysis of President Trump’s Press Briefing
The briefing consisted of prepared remarks read from a teleprompter followed by Q&A. I stopped watching when the Q&A discussion shifted from tactical, operational, and strategic details on Syria to a more general style Q&A including questions on policies and defenses unrelated to Syria.
According to President Trump, and with apparent confirmation of DNA evidence, al-Baghdadi was killed during a US raid in a compound in Idlib by forces that had flown there in eight helicopters. The route to the compound was undisclosed, but took over an hour to fly in, and they returned safely by the same route. No US personnel were lost. The helicopters did encoutner gunfire on the way into the site, but were able to neutralize it. The President also implied there was higher-altitude airpower of “tremendous firepower” which may indicate an AC-130 or other fighter jet. It was only after the forces had completed their mission and flown back landing safely that the President sent his first tweet implying the success of a major mission.
Given the complicated air-theater in Syria – where multiple sides have overlapping conflict zones, the US informed Russia, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria of the US mission to clear an air corridor. However, according to the President they were not alerted as to the nature or specifics of the mission and according to his remarks all nations gave their approval. Although the location of where the mission originated and concluded was not revealed, the President did slip that it was a “friendly port in a friendly country.”
The hunt for Al-Baghdadi began gaining traction approximately a month ago when intelligence surfaced of his possible location in Idlib. This is the traditional stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Syria, or Al-Nusra, now more commonly known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HST). Although AQ and ISIS are hostile to one another, the President indicated Al-Baghdadi had relocated to this region after the losses of physical territory by ISIS in eastern Syria in order to reconstitute ISIS forces.
Direct surveillance on al-Baghdadi began several weeks ago, and several missions to capture or kill him were called off because of his personal security measures. He also indicated that throughout the operation Kurdish SDF were providing “support” and at a later time “intelligence” to the operation, but President Trump indicated they did not provide direct military support during the operation.
When the helicopters landed, the President indicated they were met with local gunfire from militant forces protecting al-Baghdadi. These forces were killed by US personnel who entered the compound through side-wall breaches to avoid a booby-trapped front door. The President did not indicate how many militants were killed, but said the Pentagon would be releasing those numbers within the next 24hours. Apparently 14 children were also in the compound at the same time, and US personnel were able, according to the President to evacuate 11 children safely.
Based on the briefing, Al-Baghdadi took 3 children with him and fled to a dead-end tunnel. US personnel sent military working dogs into the tunnel, at which time al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest he was wearing, instantly killing himself, the children, collapsing the tunnel. The President indicated the dog was wounded but it was not clear if the dog, which are ranked members of the armed forces, survived.
President Trump repeated several times that in the end al-Baghdadi was a “whimpering, crying, coward”, and that there may be some form of audio or video evidence of this, and in his opinion it should be released so ISIS supporters can see “what a coward” their leader was. The President also provided a litany of ISIS’s offenses primarily focusing on US hostages publicly killed, the death of a Jordanian air force pilot burned alive in 2014, and the offenses against the Yazidis and Christians.
In terms of the timing of this and the US withdrawal from Syria, the President confirmed that they were gaining intelligence on al-Baghdadi’s location and planning this mission around the same time he ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. This lead to a discussion of strategic relevance given the return of US troops to southern Syria, to guard oil wells presumably in and around Deir-e-Zor.
In off the cuff remarks responding to a reporters question the President indicated he was not willing to “get into a fight between Turkey and the Kurds” repeating a common line that they had been fighting for centuries. However, he did indicate that US forces would not only remain in Syria to guard the oil, but that they would be willing to fight anyone who tried to counter the US claim to the oil. And that if another country wanted to claim it, and worked out a “fair deal” with the US they would allow it. But if the deal wasn’t “fair” the US would be willing to fight anyone trying to take control of the oil.
The President also thanked the cabinet officials who supported him during the mission: the Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor. He also thanked the joint chiefs of staff and General Milley, the chairman of the JCS. And he made mention both of military personnel and civilian personnel who were both supporting the raid directly and the multi-year effort to locate, capture, or kill al-Baghdadi.
Death of al-Baghdadi
Where to begin. First the death of al-Baghdadi is an undeniably “good thing” just like the death of Osama bin-Laden was. These were individuals who advocated a twisted violent ideology that had little to do with Islam and everything to do with the accumulation of personal power and the use of violence and suffering to achieve those ends. President Trump seemed to only mention the groups who had suffered under ISIS that mattered to him – notably passing over the Muslim victims of ISIS including ethnographic Arab Sunni, Arab Shia, Kurdish Sunni, Syriacs, Turkmen and others, as well as ISIS’s deliberate targeting of gays who were summarily executed by ISIS as a matter of course. I offer this only to contextualize that the crimes of ISIS were not solely, or even in a majority against western interests. They were a blight on every region they arose within.
Effect of al-Baghdadi’s Death on Global War on Terror
Also I’d tamp expectations that this death marks an “end” to the Global War on Terror. The remarks indicated a leader-focused perception of terrorism. That charismatic leaders arise to lead powerful non-state actor violent groups, and it is these leaders who are the chief hands directing global terror. This perception was prevalent both within the Bush and Obama administrations but is fatally flawed. Rather these violent non-state actor groups arise within conditions of legitimate grievance in certain areas, but pervert that grievance into a violent radicalization, adopting the “local-social currency” of “religion” (which they often know little about) to assimilate themselves in regions. Once assimilated they quickly drop all pretense of religious adherence that doesn’t serve their needs and simply begin the naked accumulation of power. Charismatic leaders arise *within* these conditions. Killing a leader may create a temporary operational setback, but until the carrying capacity of the grievance that leads to the local conditions is affected – another will rise in their place.
Leader-Centric Counter-Terrorism is a Flawed Strategy
This was President Obama’s unforgivable error, or manipulation, leading into the 2012 election and we need to be watchful to see if President Trump commits the same foul. To “spike the football” on the death of a leader and attribute that to a personal competence or effectiveness in ‘defeating terror’, this then is accompanied by a persistently incorrect message that terrorism is declining. After the death of Osama bin-Laden, President Obama repeated “Al-Qaeda is on the run” and limits to a “small core of hardened followers in Afghanistan-Pakistan,” when this was anything but the case. This mental model, I believe, led directly to the administrations push of the “angry mobs” narrative of Benghazi rather than acknowledging the role of Al-Qaeda aligned militant groups in the attack. It also led to the President’s early dismissal of ISIS as being like “JV” basketball players who put on a Lakers shirt and thought they were “Kobe.” The carrying capacity nature of the grievance giving rise to these groups, and the nature of these groups as well make them especially resilient to the death of a leader. Often when we kill leaders, a newer, younger, and often more violent leader takes the place. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t target leaders in military operations to capture or kill, but we need to be realistic on what the death of a leader might mean.
Role of Bayat in al-Baghdadi’s Death
I wrote last night on the role of bayat in these organizations and I’m going to clip that here:
“Specifically within salafi-takfiri organizations the role of “bayat” plays a key role. I’ve described this effect before, but for background bayat is the ‘oath of loyalty’ salafi-takfiri fighters give to individual leaders. It is normally made for life, but it is made to *leaders* and not organization.
When a leader dies, the bayat every individual has given to them is nullified, and that frees the individual to swear bayat to another leader. Which may or may not be in the same organization the previous leader was.
This function of bayat means the death of a major leader: such as Osama bin-Laden of Al-Qaeda or Mullah Omar of the Taliban, instigate intense periods of almost a kind of free agency. Charismatic deputies and lesser commanders can swing significant militant support between Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or other factions based on where they choose to swear bayat too. As expected these succession crises can often create intense paranoia, internal suspicion and conflict over *to whom* the next bayat will be sworn.
This means whenever a major leader dies there is a period of intense churn, confusion, and opportunity in the organization they led. It was during the aftermath of OBL’s death that the bayat of ISIS leaders themselves, originally given by Al-Zarqawi to OBL directly and then by Al-Zarqawi’s inheritors such as Al-Baghdadi expired. And ISIS became a “free agent”, refusing to swear bayat to OBL’s successor they instead went their own path, splitting from AQ in 2013 under Al-Baghdadi’s leadership.
So definitely a mixed bag. Impossible to know for sure how it will play out over the next few weeks months.”
Repetition of Whining, Crying, Whimpering, Coward terms
Interestingly to me is the specific repetition of these phrases throughout the briefing. The President is bombastic by nature, and it’s clear his speech writers were ‘letting Trump be Trump’ in a lot of his choice of words and frequent use of “very very” to emphasize to the audience a thing. But specifically I noted the repetition of the words whimpering, crying, whining, and coward; used in close combination over and over again. This could be an intentional, if badly delivered given the messenger, tactic. One theory of violent radicalization is that there is a notoriety-bias between individuals who are becoming radicalized and the ones they seek to emulate. By notoriety bias I mean that the acts and personal details which make a violent radical abhorrent to society are perversely seen as “cool” and almost like “celebrity status” to those being radicalized. Like a young football player with posters of an NFL star on their wall, they idolize a notorious figure and seek to become like them.
By emphasizing “uncool” traits, President Trump appears to be cutting this loop. The problem is that these messages are only well received when there is a ‘self-similarity’ bias, that the viewer of the message can see themselves in the one delivering the message. This generally means that western politicians and spokespeople are not going to be able to effectively undercut that notoriety bias. It needs to come from someone who has credibility, self-similarity, within the target group. All this could be wrong. Trump could just be being Trump, and I found a lot of his phrasing awkwardly delivered, but the repetition of this phrase did stand out to me.
Oh wow. So in the space of a month US policy has shifted from: supporting Kurdish SDF in establishment of a safe-haven with cooperation of Turkey, to withdrawing US forces and giving greenlight to Turkey’s invasion, to threatening economic sanctions of Turkey for conducting the invasion, to “it’s not our problem” and withdrawing all forces to Iraq, to reintroducing 500 personnel into southern Syria to guard the oil wells so ISIS couldn’t use them to reconstitute itself, to the US establishing a foreign territory for the sole purpose of claiming that oil and being willing to fight “all comers” who might wish to counter that claim.
Where to begin? First we have to be clear about the oil fields. It was undeniably a key asset for ISIS to exploit, and I wrote extensively about this in my articles and simulation. Selling the oil on the black market provided ISIS with the ability to hyper charge its finances: purchase hardware, offer wages and benefits plans to its fighters (death and detention benefits), operate as a semi-government, and go on a global spending spree acquiring local affiliates with promises of cash. But that’s because ISIS began as a terrorist operation and it’s cost-footprint is remarkably small. Indeed our simulations showed quite clearly that after ISIS established a territorial footprint in Syria, you could eliminate all their oil and it wouldn’t dent them because the money from local taxes, extortion and sale of blood antiquities would be sufficient to pay their way.
This was *before* a coalition of a dozen forces used their air power to turn that oil infrastructure into rubble. Although it is true that the 70% of the oil of Syria is located in the northeastern and southern portions of Syria that were held by the Kurdish SDF who we abandoned, I’m not sure the President realizes the nature of that oil relative to US strategic interests. Syrian oil is of a low grade, the reserves are not extensive to a globally strategic level, and – a quick check of the map shows that it is obtained in a land-locked region surrounded by semi or outright hostile powers through which it would have to be piped for sale unless we flew it all out. The security situation means reconstruction of the infrastructure would be extremely difficult, US companies would probably balk at it.
Worse – any established presence in that region absent the support of at least some local on the ground partner would create a situation of complete isolation of US forces holding that area. They’d have to negotiate a ground line of communication through Syria or Iraq, or fly all assets and supporting materials in by plane. I’ve lived in some places that fell under those conditions in Afghanistan – and I can tell you at a whim the owning power of the Ground LOC can turn it off like turning a key, hobbling logistics efforts. And it’s massively expensive to supply sustained US forces with the kind of materiel and equipment they need for sustained periods of time by air.
This is of course a different equation if we had a local force of reliable, competent partners who not only were militarily proficient but also had governing structures that weren’t a complete s—- show. Like, say, the Kurdish SDF. If the President wanted to make a claim on the oil, the best strategy would’ve been to stay partners with the Kurds, offer military guarantees and allow them to carry the brunt of effort in local occupation and work.
Instead, by abruptly withdrawing the President is simultaneously claiming to not want to get drawn into a “centuries old” fight in the region at the same time he asserts an independent unilateral presence *in* that region with no partner on any side. If the concern is ‘blood and treasure’ the oil in Syria, though plentiful for a trans-national terrorist organization, is not sufficient justification.
This is the bottom line for most people, and the most common question I get asked. The short answer is no, the medium term answer is no and the long term answer is “it depends.” We’re now entering a period of bayat free agency as described above, and it’s unlikely 100% of ISIS forces, which number ~20-30,000 worldwide, would simply abandon the movement that brought them such personal fame and glory that managed to dwarf even Al-Qaeda. But this doesn’t mean there might not be significant consequences that degrade or hinder ISIS effectiveness.
By way of just pondering some of the potential ramifications – the Khorasan Province of ISIS, known as ISIS-K operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan consisting mainly of former Taliban who split after Osama bin Laden’s death and foreign fighters. They could stay with whomever ISIS declares as its next leader, or convert *back* to supporting the Taliban or AQ. Previously independent groups may return to independent status, such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or Boko Haram in Nigeria. These organizations swore bayat to Al-Baghdadi during the height of ISIS’s power, and with its recent steep decline they may be looking for a reason to head to the doors. The conflict in Somali between salafi-takfiri groups, which is quite intense between AQ and ISIS splinter groups, could resolve one way or another, making circumstances there much worse than if the two groups continued to fight each other. This is all pure speculation on my part. The decision-making on each front is going to be intensely personal and probably involve a tallying of favors owed, personal grudges, personality contests and strong-arm tactics that will largely be opaque to outsiders.
The bottom line is that the death of al-Baghdadi will create a *reordering* within the salafi-takfiri landscape, but not a conclusion to salafi-takfiri conflict. Whether they stay with ISIS, return to AQ, go independent or join some new trans-national organization is simply a giant reorganization of the sum total forces. It is highly unlikely that they will abandon the conflict they are sworn too or simply fade away en masse. They may at the margins, where commitment is already weakened, but these forces have survived tremendous pressures and circumstances, including the near constant death of key figures and leaders, for going on thirty years now. I don’t see the death of a single person as changing this calculus. This isn’t to undermine the good work of the military and intelligence personnel who got this job done.
Rather if I can offer an analogy, salafi-takfirism is like the Nazi scourge upon Europe or Japanese imperial efforts in the Pacific. And the death of al-Baghdadi is much like the death of Rommel or Yamamoto. A significant tactical objective with strategic beneficial ramifications by removing both a top leader and key strategist. But not in and of itself the end of military conflict with Germany or Japan.
Sources in first comment of President’s remarks.
There’s quite a bit of dead-air time so if my calculations are correct you can skip to 49:40 in to where the President first started speaking.