The Corner

National Security & Defense

Is ISIS’s Leader Dead or Seriously Injured?

Over at The Atlantic, Adam Chandler takes a look at reports that ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be dead or injured:

On Friday, The Guardian expanded on its earlier reporting that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been seriously wounded in American airstrikes in March. According to reporter Martin Chulov, Baghdadi “remains incapacitated due to suspected spinal damage and is being treated by two doctors who travel to his hideout from the group’s stronghold of Mosul.”

Rumors abound:

There have been other reports, since discredited, that said Baghdadi had been hit in airstrikes in November and December. Further back, the September rumors that Baghdadi had been killed were accompanied by a graphic photo purporting to show his corpse, which went viral before being declared a hoax. And, for the coup de grâce, earlier this week, Iranian media offered the rumor that Baghdadi had been pronounced “clinically dead” by Israeli doctors in the Golan Heights.

In other words, we don’t know. And as Chandler notes, there’s a good chance that killing al-Baghdadi would have more symbolic than operational importance. While we should target al-Baghdadi and every other significant leader in ISIS to disrupt command and control and kill charismatic leaders before they gain celebrity status (or effective battlefield experience), we of course can’t judge overall military progress by our success at taking out leaders. When I was in Iraq, virtually every American soldier in the field hunted local commanders, renegade shiekhs, or al Qaeda “princes” in the hopes that chopping off the head would kill the body. But we were fighting a movement, not a man — or even a small group of men. For victory to be lasting, it has to be comprehensive — inflicting severe losses at every level of the organization while taking and holding territory. ISIS (including its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq) has already cycled through a number of leaders, and there’s no reason to believe it can’t cycle through many more. 

Targeting leaders is certainly better than nothing — and we should cheer their demise — but as we monitor reports about the devil we know, remember the devils we don’t know are typically just as dangerous — and quite eager to climb jihad’s corporate ladder. 

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