What Baghdadi’s death means for ISIS

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world’s most notorious terrorist, died during a raid by US military forces, President Donald Trump said in a Sunday morning press conference. The former ISIS leader’s death put an end to a years-long hunt and gives Trump another major victory in his fight against ISIS.

But Trump went further than just announcing the raid’s success. He answered questions after his dramatic remarks, divulging an astonishing amount about US intelligence and American military operations that could benefit American adversaries in the future. He displayed a deep misunderstanding of how ISIS works.


People look at destroyed houses near the village of Barisha, in Idlib province, Syria, on October 27, 2019, after the US operation targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Ghaith Alsayed/AP

He also denigrated the ISIS leader, saying Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to a dead-end tunnel. While Trump may view those comments as a smart way to delegitimize Baghdadi, many experts say that wasn’t the president’s finest moment.

After Trump gave his remarks, I spoke with Michael Leiter, who directed the US National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011 — including during the Seal Team Six raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound. Leiter and I discussed the potential impacts of the Baghdadi’s death, how the raid was carried out, and what the US can expect going forward. While he says it’s a good thing the terrorist leader is gone, Leiter also says Trump shouldn’t have given away so much information during a televised event.

“Talking about how many aircraft, where the aircraft are flying in, how they’re breaching a building, other technology they can bring to bear, knowledge about the tunnels and the mapping of those tunnels, these are operational details which are only about preening,” he told me.


Former director of US National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 11, 2015.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

It’s unabashedly a good thing that the US military killed Baghdadi, right?

Michael Leiter

Absolutely a good thing.

Alex Ward

What effect does killing the leader of a terrorist group like ISIS tend to have?

Michael Leiter

The more centralized an organization is, the more important it is to decapitate the leadership.

There was definitely a time when killing Baghdadi could’ve stopped ISIS’s rise. It’s still important to kill him, because he was an inspirational leader within Syria and beyond. But I do think that the organization has moved well past Baghdadi in the same way that al-Qaeda moved past Osama bin Laden, to some extent.

At this point — seven-plus years after the rise of ISIS — his death is far from a fatal strike against the organization.

Alex Ward

So to be clear, ISIS and its thousands of fighters will continue to pose a threat even with Baghdadi gone?

Michael Leiter

Right, the threat is not gone at all.

Alex Ward

Instead of announcing the operation’s success and walking away, Trump answered a ton of questions about the raid. Was it troubling to you to see Trump divulge a lot of information like that?

Michael Leiter

Well, first Trump exaggerated Baghdadi’s importance. Second, he repeatedly used language which frankly feeds into the ISIS and the al-Qaeda narrative about the US being at war with Muslims in nations throughout the world, as well as solely caring about our own pecuniary, economic interests like oil. Third, he made it seem like the US will discard its alliances at the drop of a hat. That is a very troubling message to the allies and partners we need need to fight with us, like the Syrian Kurds.

There was also a clear lack of historical appreciation for how these organizations rise, take hold, and are potentially defeated. To the president it all became about finding and killing this one individual. That’s important, but it’s not how these terrorist groups are ultimately ousted.

Alex Ward

Trump saying that Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” into the tunnel was striking. What were your views on that language?

Michael Leiter

Highlighting and repeating that language is not especially dignified for the United States. We should always take a higher moral ground, and talking about an individual’s death is not particularly productive.

What the president should’ve spent more time on was highlighting ISIS’s atrocities, like the killing of the Jordanian pilot. That’s appropriate: It shows that ISIS wasn’t at war with the West, it was at war with all peoples who are civilized, including Muslims who don’t adhere to their extremely strict view of Sunni Islam.

Ultimately, I think it reflects more on the president and how he’s willing to communicate. I don’t think any of that is productive in terms of diminishing ISIS’s message or keeping our allies aligned with our goal of undermining ISIS’s narrative.

Alex Ward

Is there any chance ISIS followers will hear Trump’s telling of the raid and sour on Baghdadi?

Michael Leiter

I think it will inspire anger — if that language did not, other language will. The idea that Donald Trump’s presentation will somehow undermine ISIS’s appeal to its adherents is nothing short of laughable.

Alex Ward

Trump also made the case that Baghdadi was equivalent or even bigger than bin Laden in his press conference remarks. Is he right?

Michael Leiter

This is Trump talking about terrorism from his uniquely Trumpian perspective. Osama bin Laden was the principal leader for radical Sunni Islamic terrorism. He brought that movement together, he built an organization that had more a destructive force on the United States and Muslims throughout the world than any terrorist leader in history.

Baghdadi is an offshoot of that, and the most significant terrorist leader today. But any claim that Baghdadi was more important than bin Laden reflects a complete misunderstanding of the terror threat we’ve been combating for more than 20 years.

Alex Ward

Trump gave a lot of information on the raid during his press conference. That was highly unusual, right?

Michael Leiter

I am rather confident that the president was more forthcoming than many in his administration would’ve liked. We had similar problems after the bin Laden raid and that caused significant angst in the intelligence and operations community because more was disclosed than the operators would’ve liked.

We should disclose things that are important for people to understand why we were impressive in our approach, but that does not include divulging operational details that might make something like this harder to do next time.

Alex Ward

Wait: Trump giving away some of the information he did might make future operations like this harder?

Michael Leiter

Talking about how many aircraft, where the aircraft are flying in, how they’re breaching a building, other technology they can bring to bear, knowledge about the tunnels and the mapping of those tunnels, these are operational details which are only about preening. They do not provide valuable insight into the US decision-making and potentially do provide potentially insight to our adversaries in the future.

This is little more than presidential preening.

Alex Ward

Was Trump wrong to divulge so much information?

Michael Leiter

I think the president disclosed more than what was necessary, and it could provide an advantage to our adversary. I’m willing to say that.

Alex Ward

Did any of what you heard sound similar to the bin Laden raid, since you were a top counterterrorism official when it happened?

Michael Leiter

There were some differences, but this is the modus operandi that the intelligence community and special forces have slowly honed since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we’ve had 20 years to perfect those operations.

Technology has developed to make some of this easier for us, but it’s also made it easier for some of our adversaries. But overall, it’s quite similar to what we did in the bin Laden raid: the same sort of meticulous intelligence work that slowly narrows the courses of actions, and ultimately provides the information for our forces to stealthily go in and pursue their target effectively.

Alex Ward

With Baghdadi gone, what happens next?

Michael Leiter

This doesn’t really strategically change the challenge we face with ISIS. The problem is that the president is focused on names and individuals — he said himself that he just wanted Baghdadi dead throughout his time in office.

He clearly thinks that that ends the threat. But simultaneously, our best friends the Kurds have been undermined and were told that this was all about the oil money. And we have hundreds of ISIS fighters who are not just loyal to Baghdadi, but to ISIS as a group, who have been released, and we’ve also lost— to a great extent — our ability to collect intelligence across eastern Syria.

That’s the problem. We may have taken out Baghdadi, but we voluntarily left an area where ISIS is and where we could collect intelligence, like that which supported this raid. We now have the inability to obtain important information like we did just two short weeks ago.

Alex Ward

So if Trump wanted to more thoroughly defeat ISIS, leaving northern Syria was the wrong move?

Michael Leiter

If we had a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS, by definition it would’ve included a continuing presence that we just gave up. It also would’ve included a tight partnership with the Syrian Kurds who have been our best allies in this fight.

Alex Ward

Trump said we know Baghdadi was killed after DNA tests confirmed his identity. Does that mean we had his DNA before the raid even happened and compared it with what was gathered at the raid site?

Michael Leiter

Yes, we would’ve had to have his DNA or sufficient DNA from his relatives to know it was him.

Alex Ward

How would we have obtained that DNA?

Michael Leiter

I won’t say.

Alex Ward

Okay, but to be clear: We would’ve needed DNA before the raid to compare it to the target’s DNA in order to ensure who we killed was Baghdadi?

Michael Leiter

We have for a long time worked hard to have reliable ways to identify key leadership, and that includes DNA. And you can have DNA from the individual or enough from family to do what the president described.

Alex Ward

How long does it take to plan a raid like this? Obviously, it took years to find bin Laden and then a long time to plan the operation itself.

Michael Leiter

If you have weeks, you take weeks. But if you have 48 hours, you do it in 48 hours. It sounds like they had a series of weeks, approaching a month, and found an opportunity. But if this was a pop-up opportunity, the strike may have looked very different.

We also have an ability to move extremely quickly when necessary. Moving quickly generally leads to less preparation and greater risk — you can’t adjust to everything and plan for everything if you have a shorter amount of time. But this could’ve just as easily been a raid with only 24- to 72-hour preparation time.

Alex Ward

Should we worry about an increase in ISIS attacks over the coming days and weeks?

Michael Leiter

We worried about that in the case of bin Laden. But ISIS isn’t the kind of organization that has large-scale operations on the shelf. Do I think that there are one-offs that have been radicalized that might take advantage of this using small-arms attacks in the US? Yeah, there’s some possibility.

That risk, while heightened, exists today and exists going forward — which is why the US needs a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS that goes beyond killing Baghdadi.