What Baghdadi’s Death Tells Us About the Real Terror Threat
Always look for the country behind the curtain.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
What’s the best place to look for the terrorist leader of a defeated Islamic terrorist group? When his men are on the run, look for his hideout in or near the country that sponsors him.
We didn’t find Osama bin Laden hiding in a cave in Afghanistan, but in a compound in a Pakistani military city. And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former Caliph of ISIS, wasn’t hanging out in his home turf, but in an area controlled by Turkey and its allied Islamist militias right off the Turkish border.
Osama bin Laden’s death confirmed the reports of his ties to Pakistan, and Baghdadi’s death confirmed the rumors of the links between ISIS and Turkey. Those links may not as run as deep as those between Pakistan, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, but when Baghdadi wanted someplace to hide out with his family, he didn’t huddle with his forces, but picked a location under the shadow of the Turkish military.
As Robert Spencer, an expert on the theology and geopolitics of Islamic terrorism, noted, “It strains credulity that Turkey, with its interests in northern Syria, did not know he was there. Al-Baghdadi was killed in Barisha in the Idlib province, a town of no more than 2,500 people right on the Turkish border.”
Where did we actually find the Caliph of ISIS? Allegedly, he'd been living in the home of Abu Mohammed Salama, a Hurras al-Din leader. The Islamic terror group, whose name means Guardians of Religion, had been listed as Al Qaeda in Syria in its Specially Designated Global Terrorist designation. Hurras al-Din had formerly been part of Tahrir al-Sham which has been cooperating closely with Turkey.
One of Tahrir’s four components was the Al-Nusra Front, which was formerly the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. While the US bombs Tahrir al-Sham, Turkey, a NATO member, works with it.
If a NATO member is openly working with an Al Qaeda faction, how can it possibly be trusted?
Both Hurras and Tahrir play a dominant role in Idlib. They, supposedly, don’t get along. And they, likewise, supposedly are hostile to ISIS. Except that Baghdadi’s death tells us that’s a sham.
While ISIS was calling Hurras “apostates”, and Tahrir was supposedly hunting Baghdadi, he was living under their protection, not those of his own men, which he wouldn’t have done without a deal. And there wouldn’t have been a deal unless it was part of a much broader operational arrangement. It’s hard to believe that Turkey would not have been clued in on a deal involving its own Islamist terrorist allies.
Earlier this year, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda, had ridiculed Jihadist groups in the area for operating under Turkish authority. Al Qaeda’s Jihadists have been debating whether to accept Turkey’s support. Baghdadi’s death tells us how it all played out. Turkey worked with Tahrir while ISIS worked with Hurras. The two Al Qaeda splinter groups pretended to be feuding, but were really a pipeline.
ISIS connected to Hurras which linked in to Tahrir which is under Turkish authority. That’s why Baghdadi was in Idlib. Meanwhile the Al Qaeda splinter groups in this drama were pretending to fight ISIS.
It’s the same old story.
There are no lone wolf terrorists or lone wolf terrorist groups. Like Marxist terror groups, Islamic terrorist organizations don’t exist in isolation. Even ISIS, despite its insistence that Baghdadi was the sole source of legitimate Islamic authority, was not without its state sponsors. Much like its Al Qaeda parent.
The root cause of the problem is not Islamic terror groups. It’s Islamic terror states.
September 11 would never have happened without Pakistan’s ambitions for Afghanistan, and Qatari and Iranian backing for Al Qaeda. ISIS would never have become a major terror threat without Assad’s use of Al Qaeda to attack American soldiers during the Iraq War, and the entire Arab Spring project by Qatar, its Muslim Brotherhood allies, the Gulf states, and the region’s motley assortment of Islamists.
On the Shiite side, every Islamic Jihadist group, from Hezbollah to the Houthis, begins in Tehran. And Iran’s backing has kept even, supposedly, hostile Sunni groups like Muslim Brotherhood terror organizations, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda afloat.
Islamic terrorism is not something that happens because teenagers watch videos on the internet. It doesn’t happen because of a few guys in a cave. Those are the end products of state sponsorship.
The entire existence of ISIS is due to the nature of Islamic terrorism as a defining state institution.
When we tried to shut down Saddam Hussein’s support for Islamic terrorism, the Sunni and Shiite parts of the country fragmented into dueling Islamic terror groups. Saddam’s old Sunni loyalists poured into what would become ISIS. The Shiite majority built up Islamic militias under Iranian control.
The Arab Spring had the same effect, shattering countries like Libya into their defining components. And those components are tribal identity groups with Islamic militias as their offensive and defensive arms.
Islamic terrorism is a fundamental feature of Islamic civic life at every stage of development. That’s why Islamic terrorism doesn’t go away. The names of the groups change. The leaders and the fighters die. But the endless war goes on because it’s an expression of Islamic tribal, religious, and state institutions.
Pakistan will keep on backing Islamic terrorists because that gives it influence and control over parts of its country, of Afghanistan, and over the United States. Iran will keep on backing terrorists because that’s the best way for a Shiite Islamic minority state to project its power. Qatar will keep backing Islamic terrorists because that’s the only way for a miniscule rich state to gain enormous territorial influence. Turkey will keep backing Islamic terrorists as long as Islamists who dream of rebuilding their own Caliphate are running the show in Istanbul. That’s why the terrorists will always keep coming back.
This is a problem that goes back to the founding of Islam. Mohammed and his followers started out as the original Islamist militia, leveraging tribal alliances and conflicts to take over a big piece of the world. The Islamic State, like so many Jihadis over the centuries, was just trying to follow in his footsteps.
We can’t fix the problems of Islamic societies. But we have to recognize that this is the root cause.
Islamic theology transformed tribal warfare into a religious experience. It made killing, raping, and enslaving enemies into a meaningful way of life, not just for those who partake in it, but for the countless millions who support them. Exporting democracy to the region was always a fool’s quest. Islamic societies already have their own form of democracy. Its ballots are bombs and bullets.
Power struggles aren’t settled with political compromises, but the old-fashioned way, by war.
That’s the endless war.
Americans have constant elections. Muslim societies in the region are constantly fighting. There’s never a final settlement, just as there’s no final election that determines once and for all who runs America.
Instead of exporting our way of settling differences to the Muslim world, they’ve exported their way of settling differences to the United States and to Europe. And, instead of convincing Muslim countries that multilateral diplomacy is the way to channel their global ambitions, they have managed to enlist us and involve us in their traditional form of multilateral diplomacy, supporting multiple terror groups.
Fighting Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS as if they were an isolated phenomenon is as pointless as insisting that every single Islamic terrorist is really a lone wolf. It ignores reality.
Islamic terrorist groups can’t be defeated without dealing with the states that sponsor them.