President Obama seized every possible opportunity to tout that his administration killed Osama bin Laden – but in the same breath, he would erroneously declare that al-Qaeda without its storied figurehead was foundering, decimated and just a shell of the threat it used to be.
As the campaigns to retake Mosul and Raqqa, respectively led by Iraqi forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, have made impressive gains against the Islamic State, self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will eventually meet his maker like bin Laden. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told France24 that Baghdadi is isolated with few confidantes left, and they’re tracking his movements. It’s just a matter of time.
What the Trump administration can’t do is fall into the Obama-Osama trap, as the death of the figurehead – while a notable victory – will not spell the death of the terror organization.
Baghdadi, after all, has been planning for ISIS post-Baghdadi. The next move of the terror group is already here, long before the last ISIS fighters have been uprooted from Mosul and Raqqa.
Sure, in his recent address Baghdadi told his forces in Mosul to valiantly hold the line, to not squabble amongst themselves and be good jihadists. But he also acted like a homeowner facing foreclosure who rationalizes he never much liked that neighborhood anyway.
“Our numbers are not like their numbers. Our equipment is not like their equipment. If we were equal to them in committing sin, they would have favor over us in might, and if we do not defeat them due to our virtue, we will not overcome them by our might,” the self-proclaimed caliph explained, telling his outmanned and outgunned fighters that if sawing off heads and raping children is virtuous then they’re good as gold.
He cautioned that fighters shouldn’t “slip by withdrawing from land or retreating from the frontlines” as “the price of your remaining in your land with your glory is a thousand times less than the price of your retreating in humiliation.”
But al-Baghdadi also heaped praise on jihadists in ISIS provinces around the world, from Bangladesh to the Sinai to West Africa, and told those thinking about running off to join the Islamic State to consider one of these chapters instead or fight at home. He ordered jihadists in the provinces to “remain steadfast and do not flee when engaging the enemy.”
So even as the Islamic State’s core territory is endangered, they’re telling jihadists to dig in now with ways to hold the fort on new territory and expand it.
The Islamic State’s plans have been evolving. They need to. While they still sell recruits on the apocalyptic timeline – gives a nice sense of urgency to their recruiting efforts, as jihadists don’t want to miss the Rome sacking or the coming of the antichrist – there tends to be tacit acknowledgement that maybe a caliphate you can’t hold in an apocalyptic ground zero isn’t as good of an idea as a diversified caliphate spread across pockets of the globe.
The battle for Mosul has been fierce, and the showdown in Raqqa will be brutal. But at some point, Baghdadi is going to have to decide if he wants to waste that many fighters.
After all, he already knows the future of his terror group rests in the far-flung provinces and in the worldwide network of lone jihadists – “Just Terror” operations, ISIS recently dubbed them – who don’t need to step foot in Raqqa or a training camp. Even the ISIS magazine Rumiyah has notably been offering more practical English-language instruction within its pages, showing that they’re taking a page out of the al-Qaeda DIY jihad playbook.
What the coalition of nations against ISIS can’t do is assume that a scattering of the Islamic State means a downgrade.
A spokesman for U.S. operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria recently said that after the fall of Mosul, ISIS will “be back to just being a garden-variety terrorist group.” There is no such thing as “garden-variety” terror any more than ISIS was a JV squad. The modern terror group seeps across the tightest borders, recruiting from within the most innocuous neighborhoods via social media and online propaganda. Any would-be jihadist can be recruited, inspired and instructed in any garden in the world, if that’s what “garden-variety” means.
As Baghdadi sees victory is not likely in Mosul, he’s shifting the spotlight to established ISIS provinces and beyond. And if we’re not one step ahead of that, helping allies in those regions with the grass-roots threat as well as tending to homegrown threats, we’ll see an ISIS that doesn’t miss a beat with the fall of a major stronghold – or the leader who made them a global name.