To the extent that widespread deaths among ISIS middle- and upper-management ranks made it difficult for the organization to function—a tactic Barack Obama also relied on to help cripple terrorist networks—there was no symbolic victory like the death of the very top leader. And Baghdadi’s death is indeed a turning point in the War on Terror, just as Osama bin Laden’s was in 2011. It’s just not clear what the war is turning to.
Much like the end of the territorial caliphate, Baghdadi’s death won’t end the group as a whole, or the threat it poses. The so-called kingpin strategy of pursuing terrorist leaders to defeat the groups they lead has had mixed results historically. In some cases, a group simply carries on with a designated successor, like al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri following the death of bin Laden; in others, the death of a leader can fracture a terrorist group into violent, competing factions, as has been observed among some Mexican drug cartels. When the kingpin strategy “works,” the terrorism scholar Audrey Kurth Cronin has written, it tends to be in groups that are “hierarchically structured, young, characterized by a cult of personality, and lacking a viable successor.”
ISIS is young but famously loose in its structure; to the extent Baghdadi did enjoy a cult of personality, it may have faded with the loss of land, because much of the group’s propaganda appeal came from holding territory. By the time he died, Baghdadi was a caliph without a caliphate.
His real operational role is, moreover, unclear. Bin Laden, who died in a similar special-operations raid into Pakistan in 2011, did offer direction and guidance to al-Qaeda from hiding, as documents recovered from his compound after his death show. But Baghdadi, rumored to have been killed or injured numerous times before yesterday’s announcement, spent his years on the run, reportedly with very little contact outside a small circle of people, avoiding the modern communications technology the group was otherwise famous for exploiting, for fear that cellphones could give away his location. He sometimes released recorded speeches to threaten the West and rally his followers—most recently in April. But a spokesman for the counter-ISIS coalition said in 2017 that Baghdadi had been “irrelevant for a long time”; earlier this year, a coalition spokesman told me via email that “his presence or absence within Daesh [ISIS] has no bearing on their current status.”
So why does the United States pour so many resources and risk so many lives in pursuit of such dubiously effective ends? “The kingpin strategy provides instant gratification, and of course [addressing] root causes is something … that takes years if not decades,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. Long-term investments in, say, political reform in the Sahel are not going to yield the kinds of results campaign ads are made of. The words Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead speak to an immediate and tangible achievement, as well as a kind of justice.