- Juan Coleprofessor of history at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of many books, including Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires and Engaging the Muslim World.
- Rami Khourisenior public policy fellow and journalist-in-residence at the American University of Beirut, a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and a columnist at The New Arab.
- Emma Bealsaward-winning investigative journalist and researcher who has covered the Syrian conflict since 2012. She is the editor of Syria in Context.
President Trump announced Sunday that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. Special Forces raid on his compound in northwestern Syria. According to Trump, al-Baghdadi detonated an explosive vest he was wearing, killing himself and three of his children. The raid began early Sunday when eight U.S. military helicopters flew from a base near Erbil, Iraq, to northwestern Syria over airspace controlled by Syria and Russia. Baghdadi had led ISIS since 2010. In 2014, he proclaimed the creation of an Islamic State or caliphate during a speech in Mosul. At its peak, ISIS controlled a large swath of land across Syria and Iraq and maintained a force of tens of thousands of fighters recruited from more than 100 countries. The group also claimed responsibility for deadly attacks across five continents. We speak with three guests: Juan Cole, author and professor of history at the University of Michigan; Emma Beals, award-winning investigative journalist and researcher who has covered the Syrian conflict since 2012; and Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow and journalist-in-residence at the American University of Beirut, and a columnist at The New Arab.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the reported death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On Sunday, President Trump announced al-Baghdadi had blown himself up along with three of his children, after U.S. special operations forces raided a compound in northwestern Syria where he had been hiding. Baghdadi had led the so-called Islamic State since 2010. In 2014, he proclaimed the creation of the Islamic caliphate during a speech in Mosul. At its peak, ISIS controlled a large swath of land across Syria and Iraq and maintained a force of tens of thousands of fighters who carried out mass killings, rape, beheadings and torture. The group also claimed responsibility for deadly attacks across five continents. The vast majority of civilians killed by ISIS were Muslims, mostly in Iraq and Syria. Some analysts say al-Baghdadi was radicalized after he was jailed by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004. He was held for 11 months, including, reportedly, at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
On Sunday morning, President Trump announced al-Baghdadi’s death in a televised address.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of Baghdadi’s fighters and companions were killed with him. He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way. The compound had been cleared by this time with people either surrendering or being shot and killed. Eleven young children were moved out of the house and are uninjured. The only ones remaining were Baghdadi in the tunnel, and he had dragged three of his young children with him. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast. The tunnel had caved in on it, in addition. But test results gave certain, immediate and totally positive identification: It was him. The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.
AMY GOODMAN: The raid began early Sunday when eight U.S. military helicopters flew from a base near Erbil, Iraq, to northwestern Syria over airspace controlled by Syria and Russia. The New York Times reports Syrian and Iraqi Kurds had provided more intelligence for the raid than any single country. The raid comes just weeks after President Trump abandoned his support for the Kurds in northern Syria, greenlighting Turkey’s recent invasion. The U.S. named the operation targeting al-Baghdadi after Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who was taken hostage by ISIS after she crossed the Turkish border into Syria to visit a hospital in 2013. She died in 2015, but her body was never found. She was raped by al-Baghdadi himself.
We’re joined now by three guests. In London, Emma Beals is with us, award-winning investigative journalist, researcher who has covered the Syrian conflict since 2012, editor of Syria in Context. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Juan Cole, professor of history at University of Michigan. His blog Informed Comment is online at JuanCole.com. He’s the author of many books, including Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires and Engaging the Muslim World. And in Boston, Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow and journalist-in-residence at the American University of Beirut. He’s a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and a columnist for The New Arab.
Juan Cole, let’s begin with you. Your response to the death of al-Baghdadi?
JUAN COLE: Well, I think it should be remembered that the organization he led, ISIL, developed originally as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and arose in reaction to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And so, the same kinetic U.S. military that in some ways inadvertently created ISIL has now ended one of its leaders. It certainly hasn’t destroyed the organization or the impulse that lies behind it. And I think if anybody thinks that kinetic military operations in this part of the world are going to solve all the problems, they’re sadly mistaken.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of al-Baghdadi? I mean, while President Trump talked about the killing of the U.S. aid workers and journalists, the rape of Kayla Mueller, who also died in a bombing in Syria, where she had been held captive, the fact is that — and probably these journalists and aid workers would have been the first to point this out — ISIS had killed thousands of Muslims.
JUAN COLE: Yes. Well, ISIL developed a strategy — it’s a terrorist strategy — as a small group that wanted to emerge as a state, of what it called acting like beasts. And it was quite deliberate to terrorize people all around it into submission, to convince the enemy that they were invulnerable because they would act in such a beastly and violent and berserk way. And in many ways, it worked. They intimidated very large numbers of people — at their height, millions — into submission. Iraqi soldiers who fought them talked about the horror of going into alleyways and facing men who would jump down from roofs onto them with suicide bomb belts and detonate them. It wasn’t hand-to-hand combat; it was hand-to-bomb combat.
And so, this policy of beastliness was, you know, also a media strategy to attract followers. One of the advantages that they sought was to get highly trained former soldiers from Europe who might join them. And their policies were designed to attract people with violent tendencies who had that training.
This strategy, however, has severe drawbacks in that, over time, especially if you were trying to run a state, it would make you extremely unpopular, not only with your own population, but with all of the neighbors. And it is an essential contradiction in ISIL strategy that they tried to continue to operate as a terrorist organization once they had a known address. The only way terrorism can be at all successful is if they can’t find you. But if you have a capital, then you’re doomed.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, can you tell us, Juan Cole, about the history of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — in a nutshell, how he rose to power, what his background was, his captivity in — being in U.S. captivity back during the beginning of the Iraq War, the U.S. invasion of Iraq?
JUAN COLE: Sure. Well, al-Baghdadi was not, as he’s being advertised, an Islamic scholar. He barely passed high school. He was shunted off to what was called the Islamic University of Baghdad, which was a low-level institution in Ba’athist Iraq. He seems to have preached some sermons at a local mosque as a kind of volunteer. And then he got arrested in 2004 along with some associates.
The U.S. military in Iraq would arrest large numbers of people if they were simply in the vicinity of a bombing or an act of resistance against the U.S. occupation. At any one time, they had 25,000 Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, in captivity. These prisons served as an opportunity, however, for some Iraqi oppositionists to network with others, and al-Baghdadi seems to have met some of the people who formed ISIL with him there in U.S. captivity.
An organization arose to oppose the U.S. occupation called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Its leader was killed — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — in 2006. Baghdadi joined that organization. In 2010, he emerged as the leader of it. He did innovate in the sense that he thought al-Qaeda was wrong to just engage in terrorism in hopes of weakening the state for an eventual revolution. He thought there was an opportunity, because U.S. rule in Iraq was so weak and it had destroyed the state, to actually take and hold territory under the Americans’ nose.
And that’s what he started to do, and that was all along what distinguished his tactics, is that he thought there’s an opportunity here to create state structures. And in 2014, when the organization took 40% of Iraq and made Mosul its Iraqi center of operations, he declared himself a caliph, a kind of Muslim pope, much to the derision of most of the Muslim world, but it did attract, again, some violent activists.
AMY GOODMAN: Was he held by U.S. forces? Was he imprisoned by the U.S. either at Abu Ghraib or other places?
JUAN COLE: Well, he was in prison, as far as we know, at the U.S. hands in 2004 for many months. And that certainly was one of the origins of his radicalization, although the U.S. occupation of Iraq was radicalizing enough. People forget now, 4 million Iraqis out of 26 million at the time were displaced from their homes and made homeless, not directly necessarily by the U.S. occupation, but as a result of it. And hundreds of thousands died. Sunni Arabs were suddenly viewed with suspicion by the new Shiite-led government. Many had worked for the Ba’ath government of Saddam Hussein, were fired from their jobs. A hundred thousand were fired from state jobs. Massive unemployment, as much as 75% unemployment, developed in Sunni Arab areas.
And so, this was an apocalyptic event for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and, over time, radicalized millions of them. And because I think the U.S. destroyed the secular socialist alternative in Iraq, quite deliberately, one of the few avenues for their activism that was left was a hyper-Sunni fundamentalism, which was extremely rabid in its hatred of foreigners and Shiites. But this is a night-and-day transformation of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had, as I said, largely been secular-minded and even refused Islam as the state religion.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. We’re speaking to professor Juan Cole at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. We’ll bring in Rami Khouri, who is at Harvard Kennedy School, and Emma Beals, award-winning investigative journalist who’s currently in London. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Music by Naseer Shamma. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we discuss the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, we go to President Trump making the announcement on Sunday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah, we know the successors, and we’ve already got them in our sights, and we’ll tell you that right now. But we know the successors. Hamza bin Laden was a big thing, but this is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole — as he would like to call it, a country, a caliphate, and was trying to do it again.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Trump making the announcement about the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Sunday morning. Apparently, he briefed Russia before he briefed the U.S. congressional leaders, particularly the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Our guests are Juan Cole of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Emma Beals, award-winning journalist who has covered Syria for years; and Rami Khouri of the Harvard Kennedy School. Rami, if you could respond to the news of the death of al-Baghdadi and the significance of this, what this means, and what exactly President Trump said yesterday?
RAMI KHOURI: The important thing to recognize is the longer trajectory of these kinds of radical terrorist and human movements across the Arab world, but also in other parts of the world, in Asia and other places, in Africa. But the core of these movements has been in the Arab region. And it tells us that there really is a two-headed problem here. One is the nature of these small groups, like al-Qaeda, like ISIS and a few others, that create formal groups, and they carry out terrorist acts. And ISIS went so far as to create a so-called state, that didn’t last very long.
But the other part of this, which is far more important and which the United States and Arab countries and European countries and Russia and virtually everybody in the world seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge, is that these groups are symptomatic of a much deeper structural set of stresses, inequities, unmet needs and distortions in the fabric of much of the Arab world — not all of it, but much of it — that creates hundreds of millions, literally several hundred million Arab men and women and families that are desperate to live a normal life. And a small number of them break off and go and join these groups — a very small number. But the biggest number of Arabs who are in this situation are out on the streets. You see them today. Turn on your TV or check your news feeds. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Sudan, Algeria — all across the Arab world, you’ve got literally millions of people demonstrating. And this is the deeper problem. So, al-Qaeda and ISIS are symptomatic of deeper problems, and if those deeper problems are not addressed by the Arab countries themselves, the military-led leaderships predominantly, or by the foreign powers that have supported these autocratic Arab leaderships for probably four or five decades now — if those issues are not addressed, we will just keep getting these kinds of movements emerging over and over.
And remember, it started in the ’30s and ’40s with the nonviolent — predominantly nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and parts of the Levant. And a few of them became violent later on. They assassinated Sadat. They did other things. But a nonviolent movement started. And then you had Hamas and Hezbollah that emerged as religious-led political resistance movements, mostly responding to the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. They became militarily very successful and did carry out some terrorism acts here and there, but for the most part they were resistance movements. And after that, you got al-Qaeda, and then you got ISIS, and you got dozens and dozens of these movements in Syria. So you can see the historical progression, and this is really the big issue.
So, killing Baghdadi is an important short-term setback to a group that anticipated this would happen, clearly has restructured its organizational system and its operational methods so that it would not be destroyed when the leader was killed. And they expected this. And, of course, you’ll still get ISIS trying to carry out some terror and military violent attacks here and there.
But the bigger problem is that the overwhelming majority of people who are suffering in the Arab world are suffering because of the authoritarian regimes they live under, the social and economic and political inequities, the continuing ripple effects of a hundred years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with continued Israeli colonization of Arab lands, and the continued support of big powers around the world to this status quo, most recently exhibited in U.S. and British and French active involvement in the war in Yemen, the war in Libya, supporting Sisi in Egypt, and any other situation you want to look at in the Middle East.
So, that’s the bigger picture. And the United States is not understanding it, nor are most of the Arab leaderships or foreign leaderships. And this is a problem because it means we’re going to continue on this trajectory with more radicalization, more violence and more suffering. And most of the suffering is done by Arabs and Muslims.
AMY GOODMAN: Emma Beals, on Sunday, you tweeted, quote, “Baghdadi’s death will be fodder for US news cycle in coming days, it’s important to remember that the majority of ISIS victims are in Syria and Iraq. This is important for them. Also, Idlib is now probably in a more perilous situation than before, in particular, the civilians,” unquote. Baghdadi had reportedly been hiding out in Idlib, Syria’s last major opposition-held enclave. Talk about what you fear will happen there now.
EMMA BEALS: So, the large fear for Idlib, which is the last of the so-called de-escalation areas, which are sort of part of the Astana agreement between Iran, Russia and Turkey, where they would sort of reduce hostilities in those areas. But what we’ve seen is the other three de-escalation areas have been subject to large military campaigns and return to government of Syria control. And that was probably going to happen in Idlib in some kind of a way. And you’ve seen a government in Russia campaign against Idlib over the last few months, and there’s been a ceasefire just recently.
Now, the biggest argument that they have for conducting this operation in Idlib is the presence of HTS, which is a former al-Qaeda affiliate and is designated under the Security Council resolutions about the area as being regarded as terrorists by everybody, so from the U.S. through to the government of Syria and everybody in between. And the problem there is basically that because of the presence of HTS in this area, 3 million civilians who live there, many of whom have been displaced from other areas of Syria because of the conflict and have been displaced up to 10 times, are now very vulnerable to this large military campaign. And at the moment, they have nowhere to go. The border to Turkey is closed. They’re not able to flee if that campaign restarts.
And so, the real fear is that because Baghdadi was found in Idlib, to be hiding out in that area, which comes as something of a surprise because the al-Qaeda affiliates and former al-Qaeda affiliates have been very hostile to ISIS historically — the fear is that Idlib becomes viewed solely through a counterterror lens, which there has been a tendency to do of late anyway. But if it is seen solely through a counterterror lens, you have 3 million civilians who are very desperate, who have been displaced multiple times throughout an extended conflict, who are in a desperate humanitarian situation and who may now find themselves even more at risk of being attacked because of this sort of terror lens that people are looking at Idlib through.
Of course, it’s very important to deal with those groups, be they ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliates or former al-Qaeda affiliates. However, it’s important to also view it as a civilian protection issue, when you’re talking about those large numbers of civilians living there who do have nowhere else to go. And that’s the real fear that I sort of immediately had for the people of Idlib when I heard the news.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Emma, you worked hard to try to have some of these journalists released. You knew them. And, of course, Kayla Mueller, who was raped by al-Baghdadi himself, she would be the first to point out, as a humanitarian aid worker, as a peace activist, that so many more Muslims had been killed under ISIS, you know, the Yazidi women raped by ISIS. If you could talk about your efforts and who you knew who died?
EMMA BEALS: Well, we’re a close community, those of us that work in these kind of areas, so we knew of or knew everybody that was detained. Not just myself, but so many of my colleagues that were working in the area were personally affected by this. And we obviously, when our colleagues were taken, did everything that we could, within the sort of limited capacities that we had as individuals, to try to help to have them released, and that was ultimately kind of unsuccessful.
But I think what’s important to remember, though, is that justice for those American hostages comes in several different ways. Obviously, Baghdadi’s death is hugely important as a sort of very big symbolic issue. He was the person in charge when they were held and murdered. He also did just appalling things to all of the people living in the areas that he was in control of, in both Syria and Iraq. But even if you’re just looking at the Western hostages themselves, there are two of the people from the group known as “The Beatles” who did — who took part in the detention and killing of those hostages, who have been detained —
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who you mean by the, quote, “Beatles.”
EMMA BEALS: So, the group of ISIS fighters who were the ones who detained and then were part of killing the Western hostages, two of them have been — they were nicknamed “The Beatles” by the hostages themselves, and that’s kind of how they’ve become known in the press. So, two of them — so, one of them, Jihadi John, so-called Jihadi John, was killed in a drone strike in 2015, and two of them have been detained in northeastern Syria for over two years now. And there’s been an absolute quagmire in terms of trying to get them to trial, in terms of trying to see real justice done by bringing them to the U.K. or to the U.S. to stand trial, with evidence, for the things that they have done.
So, in terms of invoking the names of those hostages in the speech that Trump gave, yes, there’s obviously a direct — particularly with Kayla, a direct link to Baghdadi and to the others, because he was in control at the time. But it’s important to remember that justice isn’t just about a military activity. It’s also about making sure that the rule of law, bringing ISIS fighters to justice for those Western hostages, and also for the regional communities that were affected by them, is hugely important, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to President Trump. A lot of clips were taken just from the very first part of the announcement he made on Sunday morning. But he then moved on, rambling wildly.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, these people are very smart. They’re not into the use of cellphones anymore. They’re not — they’re very technically brilliant. You know, they use the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump. But they use the internet incredibly well. And what they’ve done with the internet, through recruiting and everything — and that’s why he died like a dog. He died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming and crying.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, President Trump’s comments, from the dogs to the internet?
JUAN COLE: Well, Trump is an extremely disturbing leader in the sense that he basically gave us a snuff film, a film about somebody’s violent death, as a sort of entertainment, I think. And one of the ironies is that ISIL pioneered on the internet what’s called stochastic terrorism. Most terrorism is conducted by organized cells with a certain amount of command and control. One of the things that ISIL did as part of its policy of beastliness was to call upon people to undertake violent actions as a destabilizing attempt. And I think it appealed to people on the internet who were already angry and unstable, often mentally ill, and they would go out and commit violence and then would attribute it to ISIL, even though ISIL knew nothing about it. It was just off of a Twitter or Facebook meme.
In many ways, although not with the same systematic effect, Trump also is responsible for a certain amount of stochastic terrorism. The El Paso shooter who drove 10 hours to kill Latino Americans was, by his own admission, at least somewhat inspired by memes coming out of the Trump administration. We saw this in other attempted attacks on mosques in the United States. And so, this —
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, invoking Hispanic invaders was a year ago at the Pittsburgh synagogue, where 11 Jewish worshipers were killed.
JUAN COLE: Yes, Trump has adopted, and people around him have used, this language of replacement, which is a far-right conspiracy theory that the American Jewish community wants to bring in immigrants to replace white people, and so made the American Jews a target. It’s of course a monstrous lie. But these kinds of internet memes, which ISIL in some ways pioneered as sources of violence, have now been taken up by the American far right, which is in itself a kind of less organized but still very deadly form of ISIS-like activity.