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The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: What this means in the context of the War on Terror

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

Nearly eight years and five months separate the deaths of two of the most wanted men in United States history.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, was killed in a U.S. military raid in Northern Syria last weekend, an operation with years of intelligence-gathering, and days of frantic planning leading up to the assault.

In similar style, Osama bin Laden, mastermind behind the September 2001 terrorist attacks, was killed in a military raid in May 2011.

For both presidents, Obama and Trump, there was no denying that the respective operations delivered them a significant victory approaching pivotal elections that would/will decide whether or not they secure a second term in office.

But what does this mean for the rest of the world?

Since the inception of the War on Terror in 2001, the scope of terror has changed, but has not been eradicated. New groups have formed, like the Islamic State, while other groups, like the Taliban, previously ousted of power by the Americans, have regained their foothold of territory in rural Afghanistan.

Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda have launched attacks around the world, from California to Sri Lanka, Paris to Nigeria. Civilians around the world are sure to be relieved reading headlines of killed or captured terrorists. It’s a clear victory.

But the tough reality about the War on Terror is that democracies don’t fight the conventional warfare that existed for a lot of the 19th and 20th centuries. Terror groups don’t tend to wear uniforms and they fight a tricky style of guerilla warfare. With that in mind, it’s difficult to imagine completely getting rid of terrorism in its entirety.

Winning the War on Terror might not be something we ever accomplish, even if it’s at the forefront of foreign policy talks leading up to elections. The U.S. and allies can take away the physical ‘caliphate’ of the Islamic State, but the ideology might never be curbed.

Big victories like the killings of al-Baghdadi and bin Laden offer more of an emotional, metaphorical victory than they do a physical blow to the Islamic State and al Qaeda, respectively.

Successors will be named whenever high-profile terrorists are eliminated, as has already happened in the case of al-Baghdadi. A blow to the hierarchy of these terror groups won’t get rid of them.

But what the killings do represent, however, is emotional satisfaction and closure, to those personally affected by the terror groups and the victims of their brutality. Such was the case with the parents of Kayla Mueller, killed in Islamic State captivity.

Leaders of terror groups will continue to be targeted by the international community. Military operations to bring them to justice will be debated, whether or not you can justify the endangerment of soldiers for these emotional victories.

The U.S. and its allies can take out terrorists and shrink the physical boundaries of radical organizations, but to win the War on Terror means to combat the ideology at its roots. But a continuous presence in the Middle East may not help NATO allies accomplish this goal.

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