Ask any Iraqi – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, ISIS isn’t

The killing of Baghdadi brings up many questions and presents the possibility of using the attention focused on ISIS to bring attention to the people who are still suffering from ISIS’s attacks.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi makes his first appearance in five years. (photo credit: screenshot)
ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi makes his first appearance in five years.
(photo credit: screenshot)
Certainly, putting an end to the life of the former leader of the Islamic State (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was expected to be an operation conducted way more final and way more absolute. Within the last 48 hours following this action arise questions surrounding it as to who made this possible, who gave the intelligence and, most importantly, who was the dog who helped run this operation? Bringing about the end of one of the most ruthless terrorist leaders of this time seems to just be another episode in the Kafkaesque ensemble that international politics is today.
The US special operation, named after Kayla Mueller – an American aid worker who was kidnapped, tortured and reportedly raped by the ISIS leader himself – started in northwest Syria on October 26 at 5:01 p.m. ET. Two hours later the special forces – while being joined by US President Donald Trump in the Situation Room – declared “jackpot” and officially confirmed the death of Baghdadi. Shortly after, the President – of course – went on to announce that “Something very big has just happened!” on Twitter, his favorite forum of political participation. In the last four days, it was disclosed that Baghdadi took his three children and blew himself up with a suicide vest, shortly after the operation began.
THE WORDS the President used in his official statement on the operation were as tasteless as one could only have expected. Talking about him dying “[…] after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” and saying that Baghdadi’s supporters having been “losers” all the way. As always, not the language of a statesman who can fathom the seriousness of the situation but that of a high school bully who – taking the office of the strongest country in the world – uses the opportunity to bring the utmost attention to the search dog who was injured in the operation while hunting Baghdadi through the tunnel. Because who doesn’t like dogs, right?
These last hours are a prime example of how populists take complicated and highly serious matters and break them down. You just take the issue, narrow it down to a binary win/lose outcome and find some points that will immediately catch the media’s interest, shifting it away from the dark, the twisted, the complex things. A dog and the description of dying people perfectly took care of the latter and the former – clearly a win situation – was declared magniloquently.
However, the killing of Baghdadi brings up many questions and presents the possibility of using the attention focused on ISIS – that has mostly evaporated since decapitation videos are no longer available as frequently on LiveLeak – to bring attention to the people who are still suffering from ISIS’s attacks and who can certainly confirm that ISIS is not dead, and further, that the nations Trump listed as allies did not have anything to do with fighting ISIS.
Baghdadi was located in Idlib several times before this operation was even given the green light. There was solid intelligence from deviant ISIS fighters and captured wives of the ISIS leader that already proved he was in Idlib. This intelligence would be impossible to obtain without the presence of Kurdish forces both in Syria and in Iraq. Such forces took care and continue to take care of the intelligence, prosecution and persecution work, without any substantial help or even attention.
The city where he was killed, Barisha, is only few kilometers away from the Turkish border with the province of Hatay. Hatay is reportedly where various Islamist terrorists pass in and out to get resources, training or receive medical care.
The Economist recently published that a former ISIS fighter confessed to joining the Islamic State in 2013 directly by traveling through Hatay. Baghdadi could not have traveled to this area without being noticed.
THE PROVINCE played a key infrastructural role in Turkey’s “Operation Euphrates Shield” in summer 2016, when Turkey decided to enter the long calm shared borderland between Turkey and ISIS territory. While the annexation of the area between Azaz and Jarablus, that went about 30km into Syrian territory was planned and supported by the Turkish army, the advances on the ground were made by the so-called Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) which could enter the zone via Turkey. However, it was Idlib province where the majority of these fighters were recruited in the first place and sent there by entering Turkey through Hatay province and leaving it through the named border region west of the Euphrates river.
Tim Manhoff, former guest researcher at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s Syria/Iraq office even stated in a report: “The continued support of more radical Islamist groups, especially after the end of 2013, was, therefore, a strategic move by Turkey, putting regional ambitions before its commitment to its Western allies. To this end, Turkey not only facilitated the delivery of Qatari and Saudi arms and equipment to more radical groups, but also tolerated the inflow of foreign Jihadists and fighters into Syria through its southern borders, many of whom would later join groups like the Islamic State (ISIL [ISIS]) and HTS [Tahrir al-Sham terrorists]).”
Still, Turkey now manages to hold the title of ‘Warrior against Terrorism’ together with the US. Although Turkey reportedly followed and follows a short-sighted proxy war approach, it has also indirectly and directly supported Islamist militants. Both managed to cause and to commit the murder of 200 civilians, the displacement of 200,000 people, the influx of more than 10,000 refugees into Iraq, while the return of Iraqi internally displaced persons has not even been completed. Turkey gave no intelligence whatsoever on the whereabouts of Baghdadi and other senior ISIS members.
The war against terror is presented as a closed case by Trump and Erdogan while a genocidal campaign against Kurds in Northern Syria is being conducted. Both Trump and Erdogan openly talk about “the desert” being a good place to deport Kurds. The leader of the biggest terrorist organization of our time was able to survive months and months after ISIS was wiped out territorially, bringing me to my most important point: ISIS sleeper cells still exist, cooperate, function and kill.
The news on Baghdadi will fade away, the actual killings by ISIS will stay. Turkey now effectively made the strongest on-the-ground force against ISIS retreat from the border to Turkey and brought a ridiculous amount of absolutely unreliable and uncontrollable Islamist fighters to the area. To get a sense of what this will mean for ISIS, it is worth taking a look at Iraq for a minute.
Mosul, the capital of ISIS in Iraq, was already liberated in 2016, but ISIS sleeper cells are stronger than ever. From Anbar and Nineveh governorates in the north to the far east Diyala governorate, an area which almost reaches the border with Iran, ISIS sleeper cells frequently and successfully terrorize locals, steal and loot from villages and cities and repeatedly conduct hit and run operations, killing many. All of this happens without drawing any attention.
BY LOOKING at only the big things, the names of big leaders, the colors of different militias and armies on war maps, the big conferences with big tables and empty outcomes and while rightfully looking at the bad things these big people do, we should be careful not to fall into the trap connecting ISIS only to the big name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
ISIS remains highly successful and more dangerous than ever. They are not restricted to a specific territory, nor to their leader, nor to anyone. The media and the public discourse is negligent to persist in looking through an outmoded prism that is a state-centered and person-centered view of this cruel war that continues against the peoples of Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan.
To pull attention back to the real-life people who have no big Twitter accounts “declassifying” their names, I want to focus on one exemplary person: Rizgar Abdullah. He was a policeman in the city of Chanaqin, close to the border between Iran and Iraq in Diyala. Abdullah, his brother and the whole family have always been strong members of their community, supporting and initiating grassroots projects on education, infrastructure and even civil defense throughout the Iraq war, the insurgencies after 2005 and the war against ISIS.
I spent my last evening in Kurdistan with his brother a few weeks ago, and had to witness ISIS once again coming into our lives. A call in the middle of the night informed him that Abdullah was killed in the police station by an ISIS sleeper cell that just drove up to the station, started shooting at the policemen sitting inside and took off in less than five minutes. He left behind four children, the oldest only 14 years old.
That is how ISIS works. ISIS does not care whether you are enjoying an autumn evening in Kurdistan, whether you just read the news on Baghdadi being killed, whether his followers were called losers by the “leader of the free world” and whether that leader claimed that they are defeated. ISIS just comes up and kills people and leaves – and they had the last fifteen years of training to know precisely how that is done.
Iraq had years to fight against ISIS, though it is not now in an active civil war and still ISIS sleeper cells kill on a daily basis with barely any international media coverage. Now imagine this being implemented in the case of Syria where there is no ground force against ISIS, where loads and loads of Islamist militias can offer intelligence, infrastructure and weaponry, where Turkey is so busy killing and displacing Kurds that there are hardly any ground forces anymore where ISIS used to reign.
That is the situation to which they will come home. The deaths of the last days are only a foreshadowing of what is awaiting the international community. Baghdadi might be dead, but ISIS is not dead; it is well alive.
The writer is a researcher on the Kurdish question, democratization, conflict analysis, feminist as well as Marxist theories. She spent the last 7 months in Iraqi Kurdistan as a visiting scholar at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani.