The death on the weekend of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the hands of American special forces won’t end the danger from radical Islam. But it is an important victory for America’s antiterror strategy with lessons for the future.
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” President Trump said at the White House Sunday morning. Mr. Trump said U.S. forces had monitored Baghdadi for “a couple of weeks” and planned the nighttime raid that chased the terrorist into a tunnel near Idlib in northwestern Syria, where the jihadist detonated a suicide vest.
No Americans were killed in what Mr. Trump called a “dangerous and daring” operation. He deserves credit for approving a raid that inevitably carries risks of failure and casualties. The death of Baghdadi is important as a matter of simple justice given his murderous history. And it informs other jihadists that they can achieve no victory and are likewise doomed to die in a tunnel or bomb blast.
The raid also shows the importance of intelligence gathered from prisoners. Iraqi officials say their interrogation of captured ISIS fighters in recent months provided news about Baghdadi’s location. The American left has tried to discredit interrogation since the Iraq war, but it remains crucial to preventing future attacks and killing terror leaders.
Another lesson is the importance of a presence on the ground by American troops and allies. Mazloum Abdi, chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces allied with the U.S., tweeted that “for five months there has been joint intel cooperation on the ground.”
U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq were able to coordinate with allies who know the area and plot raids rather than use standoff weapons. This allowed U.S. soldiers to collect files as they did during the raid on Osama bin Laden. Such raids would be far more difficult without forward-deployed troops who can take the fight to the terrorists on their turf rather than allowing sanctuaries to plan attacks on the U.S. as bin Laden did in the 1990s.
Maintaining this regional pressure is crucial because we know jihadist forces can reorganize under new leadership. That’s what Baghdadi did after President Obama ordered all U.S. forces out of Iraq in 2011. He founded an Islamic “caliphate” across Syria and western Iraq, terrorizing minorities and other Muslims, beheading Americans and Arab Christians on camera, and inspiring terror attacks on the West.
With that history it took some nerve for Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, to lecture on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that “you can’t take the pressure off and expect these groups not to reconstitute.” She also criticized Mr. Trump’s recent withdrawal of forces from northern Syria, as these columns also have. But that’s what her former boss did in Iraq while allowing Islamic State to control huge chunks of both Syria and Iraq. Maybe sit this one out, Ms. Rice.
Mr. Trump has been sending mixed signals since his impulsive decision to cede northern Syria to Turkey after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. President Trump now says he wants to keep enough U.S. forces on the ground to control the local oil fields, and word has leaked that the Pentagon may send tanks as part of the job.
This suggests withdrawal isn’t as “simple” as Mr. Trump likes to say when he’s playing to isolationists.
Beyond the oil, the Baghdadi raid underscores the anti-terrorist purpose of maintaining a U.S. military presence. The U.S. homeland hasn’t suffered a successful jihadist attack, foreign-planned or -inspired, in some time. This isn’t an accident. It’s the result of persistent security and intelligence work that coordinates with allies to pursue jihadists wherever they are around the world.
In his better moments, Mr. Trump seems to understand this. As he basks in the success of the Idlib raid, he should rethink his retreat from Syria in a still dangerous world.
— The Wall Street Journal