Making the click-through worthwhile: Why the U.S. raid on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi demonstrates that we’re winning the war on terror; why the president’s flaws don’t always impede good outcomes; the sad story of represetative Katie Hill; and farewell to a friend of National Review.
With Al-Baghdadi Killed, Our Islamist Enemies Are Shadows of Their Former Selves
The world is a safer place today than it was just a few days ago. On Saturday night, U.S. special forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a night raid in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Take a moment to appreciate not only this spectacular mission, but how severe the threat of Baghdadi and ISIS was, and how our military and our allies managed to shut down a kingdom of horrors and smash an army of cruelty.
Back in March 2014, Graeme Wood wrote a lengthy article in The Atlantic that, at the time, was one of the most detailed and extensively researched portraits of ISIS, what fueled its rise, what attracted its members, and what its leadership wanted. A key part of Wood’s profile was laying out how this particular group of Islamists differed from the group of Islamists Americans were already most familiar with, al-Qaeda. After the U.S. Navy SEALS took out Osama bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda gradually faded from the list of prominent worries of the average American. The last major al-Qaeda attack on western targets was the Charlie Hebdo shooting on January 7, 2015.
One of the surprising conclusions from Wood — and perhaps one that other terrorism experts might dispute — was that ISIS was less focused on the West than al-Qaeda.
. . . its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest. Al-Qaeda’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the “far enemy” (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home. That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. Baghdadi has said as much directly: in November he told his Saudi agents to “deal with the rafida [Shia] first . . . then al-Sulul [Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy] . . . before the crusaders and their bases.”
Nonetheless, ISIS repeatedly demonstrated an ability inspire jihadist-minded Muslims to attempt deadly attacks wherever they lived, and this inspiration created a pervasive threat to civilian targets around the world. The list of targets is stunning, even after living through it: the Canadian parliament, the train from Paris to Amsterdam, the Bataclan theater, San Bernardino, a Starbucks in Jakarta, a tourist intersection in Istanbul, Brussels metro stations and airports, Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Bastille Day in Nice, France, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a church in Normandy . . . ISIS never launched any attack as deadly as the 9/11 attacks, but it set its sights lower and was arguably more effective: it created a sense that it could hit anywhere, not just prominent landmarks. (Many would argue this approach to terrorism inspires even more fear. You can choose to avoid airplanes or the tallest skyscrapers and government buildings; it’s much more difficult to avoid any public space or public transportation.)
Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS could point to a territory and a spectacularly cruel and brutal government, expanding its territory and conquering new peoples. ISIS argued it was the fulfillment of an ancient promise to Muslims, and that history and the divine were on its side. It represented a threat unlike any other in American history: a hostile state that was comparably technologically primitive but repeatedly demonstrated an ability to kill our civilians in unpredictable ways, often by turning our own legal immigrants and citizens against ourselves. (In a reflection of how our political divisions were starting to consume us, a significant portion of the public refused to believe that an ISIS attack was an ISIS attack, and that it simply had to be primarily driven by homophobia.)
If [ISIS] loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.
The United States did not invade but put together a coalition of most of our NATO allies, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey (although there’s a lot to unpack there) — and perhaps most importantly, the Iraqi Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces who had to do most of the fighting on the ground. (On paper, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and the Syrian government formed their own coalition against ISIS, but somehow their bombs kept landing on rebels fighting against Assad’s regime.)
ISIS isn’t dead and gone, but it’s a shadow of its former self. Jacob Olidort, special adviser on Middle East policy and Syria country director at the Defense Department in 2016 and 2017, wrote earlier this year that the president and his critics were talking past each other, that while ISIS will have members and followers for a long time to come, it no longer functions as a coherent organization:
New fissures within the group have opened over the past two years, with grievances ranging from issues of authenticity and ideological purity to organizational and bureaucratic failures. The Islamic State’s ideologues have acknowledged its changed circumstances and offered explanations for the defeats and loss of territory since the fall of Mosul. But these defenses haven’t been persuasive for some of the organization’s adepts, who have begun questioning why the Islamic State is experiencing a decline.
Similarly, Al-Qaeda isn’t dead and gone, but it’s a shadow of its former self as well. Ayman al-Zawahiri called for new attacks against Americans last month around the anniversary of 9/11. If any al-Qaeda adherents tried, we didn’t notice, and we live in a world where the tools of terror are not difficult to find: vans and steak knives and propane tanks. (By the way, if you ever worry that you’re not aging well, take a look at Zawahiri. He looks older than Si Robertson from Duck Dynasty lately.) These days Zawahiri is complaining about “backtrackers” not being sufficiently committed to jihad. This is the terrorist equivalent of becoming a grumpy old man.
Depending upon how you want to define the term “major,” the last major jihadist terrorist attack on American soil was the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, June 12, 2016. (Others might point to the Minnesota mall stabbing attacks in September of that year, and the concurrent bombings in New York City and New Jersey that thankfully had no fatalities; the following month a Somali refugee tried to run down people on the campus of Ohio State University, injuring 13, but again, thankfully no fatalities.)
The good news — maybe some of the best news for America in a long time — is that the fear of jihadist terrorism on American soil has gradually faded from our cultural landscape and collective consciousness. We no longer feel terrorized by them, and that is the ultimate failure in terrorism.
The bad news is that mass shooters and domestic terrorists appear eager to fill the void.
While This Isn’t the Most Important Angle, Yes, This Is Good News for President Trump
Readers of this newsletter know what I think of the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria — and, er, then send tanks to protect the oil fields. Readers of this newsletter know what I think of the president’s erratic decision-making, blithe overruling of his top advisors, statements that are only distant cousins from the truth if related at all and tendency to blindside his own staff by announcing decisions on Twitter.
This president gets a lot of grief, and almost all of it is deserved. But it is worth noting that his flaws did not stop this operation from going forward. When push came to shove, Trump gave the “go” signal on the operation. Whenever a president authorizes an operation like this, he accepts the risk of failure.
I don’t like having a reality show host as president — but that doesn’t mean that good things aren’t happening on his watch. The withdrawal of our troops still sounds ad hoc, with contradictory messages and abandoning alienating longtime allies who stood with us in a tough fight. But as laid out above, the Trump presidency and his appointees have managed to defeat the preeminent terrorist threat that loomed large on the world stage the day he was sworn in. That’s a real accomplishment to take to the American people when making the argument for another term.
Down Hill, All the Way
To give the sad, sordid tale of soon-to-be former representative Katie Hill the amount of attention it deserves, members of Congress are not supposed to have affairs or romantic relationships with members of their staff. House rules recognize the inherent imbalance of power and possible legal complications in that circumstance. Most private companies are uncomfortable with bosses having relationships with their employees; there’s just too much potential for abuse, favoritism, and future lawsuits. Back on October 18, RedState’s Jennifer Van Laar wrote an article that contended Representative Hill had done this twice — first with a campaign staffer and her husband, and then a separate relationship with another former campaign staffer who joined her office staff. RedState did not name the first campaign staffer and obscured that staffer’s face in photos. They also obtained “intimate photos” of Hill with the female staffer, but chose not to publish them. Text messages obtained by Red State suggested that Hill had moved on to an affair with a legislative staffer who had also worked on her campaign.
A few days ago, Hill admitted to a relationship with a campaign staffer but insisted she had not had a relationship with a congressional office staffer. The House Ethics Committee had no choice but to investigate; there was simply too much photographic evidence and screenshots of texts and such to dismiss the whole thing as crazy rumors.
Katie Hill is resigning, and no doubt she feels the entire situation is terribly unfair; she blames an “abusive husband” and “hateful political operatives.” The sudden resignation after the Ethics Committee announced its investigation does not strengthen her claim that the allegation of a relationship with a congressional employee is a falsehood. If you are a member of Congress and choose to get romantically involved with a staffer, you have an obligation to attempt to remove that conflict of interest. If you don’t, you have to live with the consequences.
ADDENDUM: Rest in peace, Allen Sidor. He was a longtime friend of National Review and one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. He will be missed at our gatherings and cruises.