Eight takeaways from the Baghdadi raid

The team at the White House decided to name the mission after Kayla Mueller, an American woman kidnapped by ISIS and held by Baghdadi until her death.

By
October 28, 2019 15:18
Eight takeaways from the Baghdadi raid

Still image taken from video of a man purported to be Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would be his first public appearance in Mosul in 2014.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The US raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was executed in the first hours of October 27. It has many similarities with the raid to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011. President Donald Trump’s theatrics have made it sound more interesting. We don’t know all the details, but here are some of the takeaways.

It took an hour to get there

Trump says that the eight helicopters had to fly over an hour to their target. This has led to speculation about where they came from. Martin Chulov at The Guardian says that the raid began just before 3:30 a.m. and the copters flew from Erbil in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region. It was a 70-minute flight. But Trump, in subsequent comments to the press on October 27 said the copters landed in a “friendly country” in a “port.” The port comment has led to a bit of a mystery, and it’s also not entirely clear if Trump would refer to Iraq as a friendly country.

Thank you: Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Kurds

Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Syrian Kurds were all given thanks for their support. The Syrian Democratic Forces have been warning for months about Baghdadi trying to get to Idlib province in northwest Syria, where he was eventually found. In March, they had indicated that he might be there. The SDF is the main partner of the US on the ground in Syria, but Trump’s decision to leave Syria enabled a Turkish attack on the SDF.

The US had to fly over areas with Turkish and Russia air defense. It had to inform Russia, the Syrian regime and Turkey.

Trump was seeking to leave Syria as intel found Baghdadi

Trump was about to announce the US withdrawal from parts of Syria on October 6 when intelligence began to pinpoint Baghdadi, who had released tapes in September and April. Many believed he was in his home country of Iraq, or in the Syrian desert. There are up to 14,000 ISIS fighters there in the desert regions of Iraq and Syria, so he could hide with them. But as it turned out, a man appeared in mid-September before Iraqi intelligence who had smuggled two of Baghdadi’s wives through Turkey and two of his brothers. Iraqi intelligence was then able to penetrate Baghdadi’s family and handed details to the CIA.

As the information came in, Trump was already making his move to leave. But the intel led to several false starts. For weeks, Baghdadi was under surveillance. Three raids had to be cancelled, Trump said. Finally at the end of October they had him, in a house next to the Turkish border, home to another extremist group called Hurras al-Din. Baghdadi might have been seeking to go across into Turkey, or to revive ISIS in Idlib. He had to be taken down before he could move again. Trump agreed.

Operation Kayla Mueller

The team at the White House – including Vice President Mike Pence, Joint Chiefs head Mark Milley, the CIA and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien – decided to name the mission after Kayla Mueller, an American woman kidnapped by ISIS and held by Baghdadi until her death. Trump memorialized Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Mueller, as well as Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. Justice would be done for them.

Trump also mentioned Christians murdered by ISIS in Libya and Yazidis subjected to genocide. “The reach of America is long,” the president said. He mentioned that the US took down Hamza Bin Laden last month. The message was clear: If you have been targeting America, you will be taken down.

He died like a coward

Trump is good at theatrics. He probably remembers the newspapers covering the capture of Saddam Hussein, claiming he was “caught like a rat.” He recalled the killing of Bin Laden as well. Under the Obama administration, Bin Laden got a burial at sea in line with Islamic tradition. It doesn’t seem like Baghdadi got any of that. “He was vicious and violent, and he died in a vicious and violent way: as a coward, running and crying,” said Trump. “he died like a dog, like a coward.”

Trump had some religious observations also, noting that Baghdadi and others “won’t escape the final judgement of God.” Other administrations might have eschewed this. The US response to 9/11 was originally called “Operation Infinite Justice,” but the name was changed because of its religious overtones.

Trump believes that one must not mince words. He said the killing was “like a movie,” as he watched it unfold with Pence and others in the last hours of October 26. It was already 5 a.m. where the battle was taking place on the other side of the world.

Lots of other people died

When the US took out Bin Laden, there were three men killed and one woman, in addition to the al-Qaeda leader. When the eight US helicopters arrived on the scene to get Baghdadi, they were met with small-arms fire. They killed off everyone in the way.

This included at least nine ISIS members. The Guardian says that the landlord was also killed. Two wives of Baghdadi blew themselves up. It appears Baghdadi blew himself up with three children. A dog was sent into a tunnel to get him; he detonated a suicide belt at the end of his ordeal.

Trump says that the US brought back not only intelligence information but may have also brought back some bodies and maybe even some live ISIS members. It’s not entirely clear. Trump said “a large number of Baghdadi’s fighters” were killed.

Baghdadi was living close to Turkey, like Bin Laden lived in Pakistan

Baghdadi was living within shouting distance of Turkey, in a area with tunnels that are used for smuggling. He might have thought to use the tunnels to get into Turkey. Richard Engel of NBC notes that the Barisha area where Baghdadi died was a smuggling area. “If you’re there, it’s likely for one reason: to cross the border illegally into or out of Turkey.” Turkish media sought to claim that Turkey played a role, but the US says it didn’t.

How could Turkey not know? Idlib province, where Baghdadi was hiding, is festooned with Turkish observation posts. Ankara claims to need a “safe zone” against terrorists but only when the groups it is fighting are Kurds; for some reason it doesn’t need a “safe zone” in Idlib, even though Baghdadi was hanging out next to Turkey’s border.

In 2014, Turkey enabled tens of thousands of people to cross its border to join ISIS – and after Raqqa fell, may ISIS members appeared to flee to Turkey. ISIS has even kidnapped Yazidis and taken them to Turkey or smuggled them to Idlib. This shows that Turkey does not appear to be pursuing the jihadist group.
 
The US is good at planning raids, bad at strategy 


The raid comes as the US is searching for strategy in Syria. Trump says the US is only staying in Syria for the oil now and that Turkey and others have been fighting each other for centuries. He wants to bring US troops home. He said on October 6 that the US would withdraw from part of Syria, then on October 13 from all of Syria, except for the base at Tanf. Then he said the US created a ceasefire on October 17, then praised Russia’s ceasefire on the 22nd and also spoke to the Kurds, who he appeared to have first betrayed, inviting their leading commander to Washington. He said on October 24 that the US will stay for the oil, and now he says the Kurds should help the US guard it. On October 27, he said that America might develop the oil and use it to pay for the war.

The whole changing strategy seems ad hoc. It’s not even clear if Trump discusses it with some senior advisors.
 


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