The Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Tactical Victory, Strategic Uncertainty

The elimination of the historic leader of the Islamic State represents a great success for Donald Trump. But it is not clear whether it will have a decisive impact on the course of the war.

Donald Trump had something to celebrate on Sunday when he announced the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, just like his predecessor, Barack Obama, when he informed the country about Osama bin Laden’s death in Pakistan in 2011. Trump can expect a significant surge in popularity at a key moment: The presidential campaign is intensifying, and when it ends next year, Trump very much hopes to be reelected.

Such an operation as the one involving al-Baghdadi is indeed extremely popular. It wins praise for those who carry it out including the U.S. Armed Forces and American intelligence agencies. And in addition, it wins praise for the United States in general, by highlighting its pugnacity and efficiency. At the same time, it appears as a victory for justice. On Sunday, Trump announced that justice was done, echoing the approach Obama took eight years ago. Of course, this is not a question of civil justice, of the law, or the courts. But there is probably no other possible justice in an ongoing war.

The Risk of Making al-Baghdadi a Martyr

This type of military elimination is also popular because of the hope that it can weaken, or even destroy, the movement that is the target of a military action. But history teaches us this is rarely the case. The example of bin Laden is illustrative in this regard. His organization, al -Qaida, was pushed to its furthest limits by the American invasion of its Afghan sanctuary. However, al-Qaida has hardly suffered from the death of its historic leader. In the years that followed, it even became stronger in several operative fields such as Yemen and Syria.

The most spectacular example of the collapse of an armed group following the defeat of its leader is the Peruvian Maoist guerrilla group, Shining Path, which failed to withstand the incarceration of its leader, Abimael Guzman, in 1992. But it was an arrest, not an execution. The arrest allowed the authorities in Lima to publicly humiliate him by presenting him dressed in a striped prisoner’s uniform in a cage, where his screams seemed suddenly bestial as much as pathetic.

It is in this light that we must interpret the force Trump used to describe al-Baghdadi’s last moments, depicting him as a coward who did not hesitate to drag some of his children with him to their deaths. By killing its enemy, the United States took the risk of turning him into a martyr. It must do everything possible to destroy his reputation.

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