Baghdadi was a monster — but his killing reflects a failure of U.S. policy, not a victory

Following news that the infamous leader of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest, killing himself along with three of his children, over the weekend during a clandestine raid by U.S. Special Forces (also infamous) in northwest Syria, critics of the U.S. global war on terrorism are highlighting how Baghdadi's death exemplifies the endless and cyclical nature of a global conflict that perpetuates the very terrorism it claims as its mission to destroy.

"Nobody is better than the U.S. at killing terrorists. Nobody is better than the U.S. at creating terrorists," tweeted author and peace activist Medea Benjamin on Sunday. "The cycle continues. The weapons companies get rich. Children—yes, including Bagdadi's children—die."

Writing for The Week on Monday, freelance columnist Joel Mathis argues that al-Baghdadi's "grisly demise"—though greeted with cheers by many in the U.S., the western world, and across the Middle East—should be viewed neither as triumph nor a victory.

Don't misunderstand: Baghdadi was evil. Under his leadership the Islamic State beheaded hostages and violently imposed the worst sort of theocratic rule wherever its caliphate could be established. He kept sex slaves for his personal gratification—including, reportedly, U.S. hostage Kayla Mueller. It is impossible to mourn him.

But while Americans celebrate Baghdadi's death, they should also think critically about his life — and see it as a cautionary tale against U.S. meddling in Middle East affairs.

According to Mathis, the story of this latest terrorist leader should be a "reminder that when America ventures abroad, we sometimes help create the monsters we later feel compelled to destroy, starting a loop of self-justification that results in an endless string of 'forever wars.'"

Responding to Mathis' column, journalist Will Bunch put it this way:

Like others before him, the origin story of Baghdadi's vicious campaign can be found in the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the brutality that followed. Himself a prisoner at the notorious Camp Bucca prison, Baghdadi was among those held by the U.S. military during the early years of the Iraq occupation following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Writing for Common Dreams on Monday, longtime anti-war campaigner and humanitarian Kathy Kelly—who, as co-coordinator of  Voices for Creative Nonviolence, has traveled into U.S. war zones for decades—remembers her visit to Camp Bucca in 2004 as being "one of the most hellish spots" she had ever encountered in the world.

Allowed to speak with a small group of prisoners, Kelly recounts how the young men corroborated grievances that others had shared about Camp Bucca as they "spoke of loneliness, monotony, humiliation, and the fearful uncertainty prisoners face when held without charge by a hostile power with no evident plans to release them."

President Donald Trump, who took to a podium in the White House on Sunday to announce Baghdadi's death, is the third U.S. president in a row to hold such a press conference, with George W. Bush in 2006 announcing the demise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Barack Obama doing the same after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated by U.S. Special Forces at a Pakistani compound in 2011.

The Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman writes that these "three fatal milestones all point to the strategic incoherence within a global war that has now lasted an entire generation."

There would have been no Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had Bush not invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. That war created an opportunity for a mass murderer, Zarqawi, to construct an al Qaeda franchise more bloodthirsty than even the one bin Laden created. Even after Zarqawi's 2006 death, bin Laden could never rein in al Qaeda in Iraq, documents recovered after the 2011 raid on his Abbottabad compound showed, and he grew particularly dyspeptic over the offshoot’s clear desire to declare a caliphate.


No one should think the fall of the caliphate, let alone Baghdadi's death, means that U.S.' jihadist adversaries have achieved their final form. Whatever else the war on terrorism is, its history shows it yielding further generations of jihadists as long as there are American forces hunting, surveilling, and killing Muslims worldwide. Part of that dynamic involves those newer generations emerging when U.S. forces pull back but leave intact the apparatus of the war on terrorism—the drone strikes, the surveillance dragnets, the lethal raids—as happened in Iraq in 2011 and, very likely, will happen in Syria now, in 2019. Maintaining that apparatus is supposed to hedge against withdrawals from agonizing ground conflicts. Yet at each turn of the war's ratchet, the jihadists have only come back in more violent form and greater mass, the exact opposite of what any war is supposed to achieve.

According to Ackerman, anyone exploring whether or not Baghdadi's death spells the end of the Islamic State or if it represents a crucial turning point in the global war on terror is asking an inane kind of question.

"As proficient as U.S. special operators have become at manhunting these past 18 years, and as central as manhunting has been during that time, there is no campaign plan, not even a theory, by which the killings of jihadist leaders knit up into a lasting victory," writes Ackerman.

"Asking for one," he continues, "would require reckoning with the catastrophic failure represented by a war that only perpetuates itself."

What critics cannot seem to overstate is just how important the history is—even as the history is what most often gets buried when the latest "most-wanted terrorist" turns up dead. As Ackerman concludes:

Trump's pullback from northeastern Syria has troubled American strategists. The persistence of the war on terrorism, which set the context for that pullback, troubles them less. At a Reuters forum in September, I asked former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis why military officers never put forward a theory of victory in the war on terrorism. He responded that terrorism was a persistent reality, "an ambient threat," and so was an American response. "This desire to have the war over, I understand it, but this is a war that springs from root causes that will have to be addressed at the same time we’re fighting," Mattis said. "It will be there throughout our lifetimes."

Terrorism, as old as human history, will indeed be present throughout our lifetimes. But that elides the choice America makes to wage a war against it that only makes jihadism worse. While the bombs drop, American officials never get around to addressing Mattis' undefined "root causes," because some of those root causes are the bombs themselves. And all that means Baghdadi's death gains the U.S. as much as the broader war on terrorism does: ultimately nothing, only a fleeting feeling of national pride briefly concealing the worsening wreckage of a generation.

Echoing both Ackerman and Benjamin, Mathis notes the sinister and circular nature of it all.

"If you step back and look at U.S. policy over a 20-year timeline, you recognize the logic as endlessly circular," Mathis writes. "We must have troops in the Middle East to neutralize threats to America that might never materialize if we didn't have troops in the Middle East."

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