Reports that Russia may have killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have raised hopes that the Islamic State is finally unravelling. Without providing confirmation, the Russian Defence Ministry has suggested that Baghdadi was one of several senior IS leaders killed in an airstrike close to Raqqa on May 28. But even if the speculation turns out to be true, Baghdadi’s demise, while important, may not prove as decisive a blow to the future of his movement as foreign observers would like it to be. IS itself was founded just four months after an American airstrike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who founded a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s contempt for Shiites and his indifference to civilian casualties was so extreme – he was narrowly prevented from detonating a chemical weapon inside Jordan – that Al-Qaeda severed its relations with his group. But instead of marking the end of the savagery associated with his leadership, Zarqawi’s killing created a power vacuum that was soon filled by the much greater violence of the Islamic State.
While losing swathes of territory to the overwhelming military forces ranged against it, the Islamic State appeared to escalate attacks on ‘soft’ foreign targets, especially in Europe. But there is evidence that these were planned long before IS found itself hopelessly overmatched. The group has also shown unexpected resilience to attempts to disable its cyber operations, reportedly regrouping within days after its servers have been hacked or closed down. This decentralised organization makes it hard to target the network with a silver bullet and almost impossible to defeat by military action alone.
This resistance to easy fixes is important to acknowledge because Russia’s increasingly destructive intervention in Syria has been carried out in the name of fighting terrorism. In fact, its most significant outcome has been the shoring up of the Assad regime and the entrenchment and prolongation of the civil war at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Russia’s attitude is uncomfortably close to the new stridency in US foreign policy, with its religious undertones of pursuing the fight of good against evil.
Speaking in Saudi Arabia, President Trump urged his audience – a roomful of despots with questionable human rights records – to “drive out” terrorists and extremists: “Drive. Them. Out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land, and Drive Them Out Of This Earth.” President Trump delivered these remarks as though unaware of any of the contexts that give rise to the extremism he was condemning. Yet just a few weeks earlier his administration had launched missiles against a Syrian airfield to punish Assad for a monstrous gas attack – a war crime enabled by a similarly Manichean narrative. If President Trump is not aware that the self-righteousness of arguments used to justify extreme measures against terrorists tends to foster even greater self-righteousness among the extremists themselves, then his advisers and speechwriters ought to be.
Terrorism has always drawn its power from deep-seated political crises – such as the sectarian hatreds that erupted after years of misgovernance in Iraq. To believe that these crises can be solved only by bombs, assassination, or other militaristic forms of ‘driving out’ evil, is to yield to the political blindness that originally produced them. At a time when acts of nihilist violence seem to occur randomly all over the world, on an almost weekly basis, it has become more important than ever to recall that all lasting solutions to terrorist violence have included political dialogue and none has been reached by military force alone.