Why it Isn’t that Important Whether ISIL Leader was Killed

By Juan Cole

Revised 11/10

Rumors are swirling that ISIL leader Ibrahim al-Samarra’i (who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) was severely wounded and that some of his chief lieutenants were killed by a US air strike on a meeting of ISIL leaders on Friday. (Update: ISIL is confirming the injury of al-Samarra’i)

The Iranian newspaper Tabnak quotes from al-Sumaria that it was US air strikes or those of coalition partners that killed 20 high ISIL leaders. It alleges that Umar al-Abasi, an ISIL bomb maker, was among those killed, along with Abu Hanifa al-Yamani, an aide to al-Samarra’i.

I caution everyone that such a contradictory set of narratives is obviously not very trustworthy, and no one know if the ISIL leader was actually hit.

Second, the US has killed a long line of al-Qaeda leaders by now, from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 to Bin Laden himself. The military’s theory that leadership is rare and attrition wrought on leaders is decisive in defeating a group is simply incorrect. ISIL’s toolbox of terrorizing and coercing people is available to large numbers of people. Plus, ISIL’s big advances in June of this year weren’t even military, but rather were political. They convinced the people of Mosul, a city of 2 million, to join them against the Shiite government in Baghdad.

There are plenty more potential ISIL leaders out there.


BBC News: “US air strikes target Islamic State gathering in Iraq”

23 Responses

  1. Unsurprisingly, Israel suffers from the same mistaken assumption. For example, “Israel has assassinated dozens of Arab political and military leaders….What have the results been? Overall – nothing positive. Israel killed Hizbollah leader Abbas al-Moussawi, and got the vastly more intelligent Hassan Nasrallah instead. They killed Hamas founder Sheik Ahmad Yassin, and he was replaced by abler men.”
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  2. U.S. Central Command summed up why these attacks are important…”This strike demonstrates the pressure we continue to place on the IS terrorist network and the group’s increasingly limited freedom to manoeuvre, communicate and command.”

    Continuous pressure from the air and on land will cause ISIS in Iraq to collapse. Don’t let up or give them a break.

    I wonder what John McCain thinks now? It was a bleak day for Baghdadi and a bad one for all the Republican war mongers.

    • p.s. I also wonder if John McCain will be singing a certain Beach Boy song about bombing ISIS the same he did about Iran? If Baghdadi is dead, the next time McCain is on the tube some reporter ought to ask him to celebrate the occasion by singing a few bars.

      Show a cli[p of the original first.

  3. It is extremely important that we recognize the false assumption believed by many in the US, that terrorism can be stopped by “cutting off the head” of the organization, an assumption reinforced by the continuing howls of triumph each time a supposed “leader” is killed.

  4. True, yet since this particular group boasts of re-establishing the Caliphate, perhaps killing the Caliph is more significant and less replaceable than killing the head of an organization such as Al_Kaida

  5. The first link, to Iraqi News, leads to an article datelined July 5.

    However, there is a Nov 9 article about the recent incident.
    link to iraqinews.com

    The fact that there is a similar sounding article from July should be a lesson in caution by itself.

  6. A case in point would be al-Zawahiri… while BHO has repeatedly announced he killed UBL, he has strangely lost interest in finding al-Zawahiri (in spite of apparent attempts to start up operations in India). The prize is now Ibrahim al-Samarra’i but, like AZ in AQ, ISIS has depth (a consequence of a lack of follow up to Intel that ISIS was on the rise). So, when will BHO go after AZ? Oh that’s right, he’s “on the run”. There is no stronger delusion than believing ones own propaganda.

  7. Juan,
    What you are saying is relatively true, but not absolutely. Leadership still requires talent and everyone has varying degrees of it. Zarqawi was a ruthless, cunning and efficient leader. His successor, Al-Masri was not nearly so–AQI’s downturn was, in part, due to his less successful leadership abilities–trust me, I dealt with it for years. Yes, the organizations will survive, perhaps even thrive. In the case of al-Baghdadi, we were probably sorry in retrospect that we killed AAM, but yes it does matter–both ways. Incrementally, but some…

    • If the underlying legitimacy of the movement is sufficient, new leadership will emerge and fill the gap. If that new leadership is not up to the job, the movement will dip down and find other to try, whether or not we kill them outright. No matter who does it, be it in business or war, culling ineffective top guys puts pressure on the movement to produce leadership (people, ideas, strategies, tactics), more appropriate to the cause. You’ll helping them to refine themselves: look at how this gang has evolved its current set of capablities with the thinest sort of legitimacy.

      Killing leadership causes a movement to evolve, and to inevitably become stronger, assuming the movement has a degree of legitimacy. I won’t venture to say that was the case with ISIS; with Hamas/Hizbullah I would.

      Of course, if an ego (or that of a nation, government, or a bureaucracy like the military), is all tied-up with the notion of superior-people as a matter of self-validation, this’d be an awful tough thing to recognize, much less accept.

      And as a matter of practicality, what else are you doing to do? As a matter of tactics, killing C&C will toss a wrench into their operations. But strategically, assuming a legitimacy to their cause, you’re only liable to be creating a more capable organization.

  8. For all you true believers in the power of Air Power and the Imperial Fist, a careful read of this little article from today’s NYT ought to give some pause and for the honest ones, return some echoes of past excesses: link to p.nytimes.com Or at least stir up some more substantive apologias for doing More Of The US RULES Same…

    Ah, who cares any more? We Imperials all will keep doing what we do, because Impunity and profit and Careers.

    • If this doesn’t work, don’t you fear the Republicans winning the White House in 2016 and sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq? To me, that is the biggest danger.

      I must be missing something. BIG.

      I don’t trust Obama, but I fear the Republican war mongers and the neocons.

      • Actually, I personally fear gradualist apologists who would persuade the rest of us, by subtle repetition, that “we” first have the right, power and “duty” to “do something” about barbarians who ain’t OUR barbarians, and second, that doing the same stuff, again, run by the same bunch who ran the last Imperial “interventions” (that dishonest obscurant term), moving the world ever closer to a variety of chaotic failures, will even do the stuff that enthusiasts claim it will address.

        But I admit to a perverse satisfaction in paging through all the war porn that’s so readily accessible these days. What a sorry lot we humans are…

        • Ok, thanks for the response. This might blow up in Obama’s face and I could be wrong, but the war party is a scary bunch. I was wrong about Assad in Syria. Like Dr. Cole says—“too many moving parts.”

          If Obama backed away, he’d get blasted like Jimmy Carter. It would be 1980 all over again except today those Republicans are itching for a big war.

          OUR barbarians just broke the gate down.

  9. If someone had killed Dwight Davin Eisenhower in April of 1944, would we have cancelled the Normandy invasion, packed up our weaponry and returned to the North American continent, leaving Europe to Hitler? I think not. And yet thise is what we seem to think the Islamist groups will do if we kill their leader. Nuts.

  10. Neither ISIS nor al-Qaeda will be defeated in the foreseeable future, but killing their leadership is likely to degrade their capabilities, which might be our best option. The downside, of course, is that such actions will incense their members and supporters and may lead to further recruitment and aid. I don’t think negotiation with ISIS is an option and hope we’ll never reach that point.

  11. What few realize is that Israel has based its assassination policy on a CORPORATE study. The initial study was to find out how many managers can be fired before the corporation collapses. Israel admits now that (see Gatekeepers) such a misguided policy leads to much more radical and homicidal leadership. ISIS is already following the al-Qaeda theory of “management of Savagery,” so I don’t see any change there. This is why I disagree with Yasser (above).

  12. It may not be important for IS, but it is very important for the psyche of Americans. The State Dept has to show results and boost the support at home. Many citizens don’t understand the conflict and its complexities. The idea is to showcase the bad guy, exaggerate his role and misdeeds (e.g. CIA admitted to doing the same with Zarqawi) and then hopefully kill him to fool the public about false victory.

    The real players are in the background: the former Iraqi generals, the professional fighters who migrate from one conflict to another, & the usual funding states. The US is using covert campaign to isolate the “good” generals from “bad” ones. This type of strategy has failed many times in Afghanistan.

    • Re good and bad generals and other warlords, may I make another plug for Gary Schroen’s memoir of his involvement as CIA paramilitary operative in Afghanistan, “First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan”? It contains, for those who can get past the cheerleading stage, a whole bunch of insights into the nature of free-floating self-interested relations between the many tribal, family, gangster and “government” actors on the ground, during this one small stage of the CIA’s much-bragged-up messing around over there, post -9/11. For Schroen himself, there’s a brief Wiki article, link to en.wikipedia.org, with a few useful links for those who care. And the CIA thinks highly of itself and its players, how “successful” these little interventions have been according to their values and goals, and has a nice article up on its site: link to cia.gov

      And of course there’s Steve Coll’s opus, “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” the prequel to “First In.” link to en.wikipedia.org, that lifts a few other corners of the carpet to uncover the roaches and rats…

      It’s so cute, how the jackals and sneaky-petes brag up and display their pride at demolishing stability, overturning democratic motions, and influencing outcomes and stirring the pot and generally raising havoc all over the place, in the name of just what, again?

      There’s the idiot mythologies up front, and the “gritty realities” floating in the background fog…

    • Insightful. There is also often a trade-off being between doing the smart thing or doing the right thing politically: e.g. appearences that will support other more important goals. The reality is that in this little conflict, and for the needs of US politicians, the extingencies of appearances trumps that of the realities.

      Given our class of professional politicians, committed mainly to personal power and gain, and especially since the stakes to the US are not that great, don’t expect too much that is reality driven.

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