To catch or to kill the leader of ISIL Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been the cherished goal of several nations since 2014, with the United States and Russia having enough abilities to do it. The Americans have the upper hand here as the “Caliph” stays mostly in Iraq. But despite this “monopoly,” the U.S. command is unable to accomplish this mission.
Since early 2015, we have received almost a dozen of reports about al-Baghdadi “seriously injured” as a result of U.S. air strikes. Had at least half of them been true, the “Caliph” would have been beaten to a mummy. The last such report was received after the Feb 11 air attack on al-Qaim, where al-Baghdadi was believed to be conferring with his commanders. But we have no proofs that he was there or that he was wounded or killed.
His potential whereabouts is an area on the Iraqi-Syrian border, more specifically, either al-Baaj or al-Qaim – somewhere between Mosul and Raqqa.
Al-Baaj was first mentioned in the spring 2015. There are several reasons why the ISIL leaders have chosen this town as their residency. There are just 5,000 people left there. Each person knows the others. So, any stranger can be easily detected. Under al-Baaj al-Baghdadi has dug a whole network of underground communications, where he is reportedly hiding now. Neither an F-16 nor a drone can hit any target hiding under the ground.
A commando operation is not a solution either. U.S. commandoes will hardly be able to take al-Baghdadi aback in the compact and well-guarded al-Baaj as they did to the Al-Qaida leader in Abbottabad in on May 2 2011. The Americans have no stopover base in the area. They had one before 2008 but they have left it as it was isolated and very vulnerable to ISIL attacks.
The Americans will face similar problems in al-Qaim as can’t see al-Baghdadi’s moves from al-Baaj to al-Qaim and back. Those two towns are 300 km far from one another. They have no mountains in between. So, we can assume that they are connected with a network of underground communications. ISIL had enough time, human resources and technologies for digging them.
There is one thing that can force al-Baghdadi to go out and to take to the road, say, to Raqqa: if the Iraqi governmental forces liberate Mosul and move westward towards the Syrian border. An operation to throw ISIL from Iraq back to Syria would be the best way to force the “Caliph” to come to the surface. But such an operation will require 1-1.5 years at shortest and active cooperation of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Shias and the American air forces.
The Americans and their allies have no so much time. Donald Trump needs a quick and roaring success.
He needs something that will strengthen the United States’ positions in the Middle East.
Today, the U.S. establishment is facing one of the most controversial periods of its history. It has not split yet but the demarcating lines are already visible. During her last visit to the United States, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said that she had have never seen the United States “so polarized and split as well as burdened with conflicts.”
With so much antagonism coming from the leading mass media, Trump needs “victorious” news. Today, he is very vulnerable to information attacks. The resignation of his national security advisor Michael Flynn was the best example of this.
The killing of al-Baghdadi would be a chance for him to avoid impeachment. In the autumn 2016, Obama tried to use the al-Baghdadi factor for giving Hillary Clinton a huge margin over Trump. But he failed to kill al-Baghdadi. So, now Trump has a really great chance to get the better of Barack Obama, Clinton, CNN and all those opposing him.
He has instructed the new Pentagon commanders to develop a new military strategy in the Middle East. This anti-ISIL doctrine is supposed to be ready by the end of this month. And one of its points will certainly be the killing of al-Baghdadi. Trump is a man with specific goals. And the killing of the Caliph is one of them.
He has already experienced a failure in the Middle East. On Jan 29, U.S. commandos attempted to catch the leader of AQAP Qasim al-Raymi but the terrorist escaped and later published a video where he mocked Trump.
In Yemen, Trump missed the target. Should he miss a bigger target like al-Baghdadi, he will lose much more rating points.
But if successful, the “To Kill the Caliph” operation will give him lots of military-political dividends. Until now ISIL has been stable and schism-proof. Despite its last defeats in Syria and Iraq, it remains attractive to Jihadists. Quite recently, it embraced Jund al-Aqsa, a group fighting in the Syrian provinces of Idlib and Hama.
It is hard to say what ISIL will do if al-Baghdadi is killed. The most probable scenario is fight for power. The other possibility is a split. The examples of Al Qaida after bin Laden or Taliban after Mullah Omar let us hope that the second option is more probable.
There is one more reason why the killing of al-Baghdadi is being delayed. Now that Trump has come into power, the Department of State has been pushed away from the decision-making process. We are receiving no reports about Rex Tillerson’s contacts with the Middle East partners. Instead, we keep receiving news about the CIA director’s visit to Turkey.
Obviously, pragmatic Trump has instructed his diplomats to be ambiguous until his army and special services show some results. To kill al-Baghdadi is the common goal of Trump, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA. If they succeed, they will improve the United States’ image in the Middle East as they will show that only the Americans can carry out such “projects.”
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau