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The History Briefing on the Assassination of ISIS Founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: How Historians Have Discussed Recent News

Last Sunday, October 27th, President Trump announced in a televised news conference that ISIS founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a US special operations mission. The news came amidst turmoil in the Middle East after Trump pulled US troops out of Northern Syria and Turkey quickly invaded Syria last month. To understand this complex situation, historians contextualized Baghdadi’s death,  the history of ISIS, and the history of militant and terrorist leadership more broadly. By looking to the past, we can gain a better comprehension of the effect Baghdadi’s death will likely have. 

Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern Universityauthored an op-ed for Newsweek titled “Baghdadi’s Death Does Not Matter.” Abrahms uses the "rules" for militant leaders developed in his book Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Military History to argue that Baghdadi was an ineffective leader. Abrahms studied hundreds of militant groups throughout world history and created three rules that he says smart militant leaders follow: understand that not all forms of violence are equal for furthering political goals, prevent rank-and-file members from harming civilians, and avoid blame for terrorist attacks by low-level members. In his opinion piece, Abrahms reviews Baghdadi’s actions as the leader of ISIS and concludes that Baghdadi failed to follow these rules and was thus an inept leader. Particularly, he finds that Baghdadi failed to realize the value of limiting his followers’ violence against civilians—something that most skilled militant leaders understand. Breaking these rules, Abrahms argues, was a detriment to ISIS, driving away both other militant groups and the local population. Abrahms points out that more fighters have been leaving ISIS than joining it. Further, Baghdadi’s excessively violent approach has motivated the largest anti-terrorism coalition in history. Baghdadi’s approach has made ISIS a highly prioritized target, all while driving away potential allies and recruits. This is why Abrahms predicts Baghdadi's death will not be a great loss to ISIS, as Abrahms believes Baghdadi’s approach did more harm than good to the organization. Abrahms’ particular focus on the strategies of militant leaders makes his input on Baghdadi’s leadership, and the vacuum the terrorist leader will leave, especially valuable. 

Greg Barton, a professor of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute, makes a more optimistic but still measured prediction of the impact of Baghdadi’s death in an article for the Conversation. Barton examines the history of ISIS, noting that from its beginning it has been a hybrid movement of religious fundamentalists and experienced Baathist military figures. Baghdadi, Barton notes, was a strong leader because of his role as a religious figure and his background as an Islamic scholar earned him credibility as the leader of a new caliphate. So Baghdadi may be hard to replace, says Barton, but there are other powerful influences at work within ISIS. Barton connects the rise of ISIS with the de-Baathification project that occurred after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many Sunni military leaders were ousted from the Iraqi government in a short time, which proved to be a great opportunity for ISIS recruitment. Many key figures in the organization are ex-officers in the Iraqi military and intelligence agencies. Though the loss of Baghdadi is a significant blow to ISIS, the hidden core of ISIS leadership still remains intact. Barton predicts that Baghdadi’s death has no chance of being the end of ISIS, but it could provide an opportunity to slow its resurgence. Professor Barton believes the key to optimizing the damage to ISIS is cutting down emerging leaders as they rise to prominence. And this, he believes, is largely contingent on whether President Trump sticks to his decision to pull US troops out of Syria. Professor Barton’s contribution is particularly important as he looks to the genesis of ISIS as an organization to determine the impact the death of its founder may have going forward.

Max Boot, a military historian and best-selling author, explores the limits of ‘decapitation’ strategies—the killing of a terrorist movement’s leader—in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. Boot explains that the death of a group’s leader is most detrimental when the group has weak organization and depends largely on a cult of personality. Otherwise, terrorist groups have shown to be entirely capable of bouncing back from the death of a leader. Boot gives several examples from the recent history of failed decapitation strategies. For example, Israeli Defense Forces killed Hezbollah’s general secretary Abbas al-Musawi in 1992, but Hezbollah is stronger now than ever before under his successor. Boot fears that, with ISIS already bolstering itself for a comeback in Iraq and Syria, Trump’s recent decision to pull American troops out of Syria will give a perfect opportunity for a resurgence of ISIS. To Boot, the removal of US troops, and the instability this could bring to the region is a far more important factor in the fight against ISIS than the death of al-Baghdadi.

Rebecca Frankel, who authored War Dogs: Tales of Canine History, Heroism, and Love, examined the headline from a very different angle in a Retropolis article written by Washington Post reporter Alex Horton. A Belgian Malinois dog named Conan helped special forces operatives in their pursuit of Baghdadi. The president hailed the pup as a hero and announced Conan will visit the White House. Frankel details the long history of war dogs, present in some capacity since at least the Civil War. The use of dogs in war has become more extensive since then, now a vital resource in locating bombs, and in aiding special operations, like Conan. In fact, a dog named Cairo helped Navy Seals to take down Osama bin Laden. The subject of war dogs is not entirely cheerful, however, as Frankel notes there are issues with maltreatment of dogs in service, as well as issues for retired dogs such as PTSD and difficulty in finding good homes for military dogs. 

In the fight against ISIS, the military and political situation is complex and ever-changing. Historians disagree about how much damage Baghdadi's death will do to ISIS, but it is clear that the fight against ISIS is on-going and crucial to restoring stability to the region.