Abbas Kadhim on Al Baghdadi, Trump 2020 and US-Turkish Relations

Published October 30th, 2019 - 10:38 GMT
Abbas Kadhim is Director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council /AFP
Abbas Kadhim is Director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council /AFP


This week, on 27th October, the 'caliph' of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself by detonating a suicide vest during a special U.S. military operation in the Syrian town of Idlib on the border with Turkey.

Considered a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the United States, the death of Abū Bakr made headlines around the Middle East and the world. DC Insider spoke with Director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, Abbas Kadhim, to understand the implications for ISIL in the region and for the long-standing U.S. War on Terror.


“Baghdadi and his group were acting in the most cowardly way and I would not be surprised to see him being so cowardly in his last moments so again. These are not people who fought like heroes- these are people who went and fought against unarmed civilians… They captured and raped defenseless women and they went after all kinds of weak people.”

Since the announcement of Baghdadi’s death was made public, Trump has been extremely vocal regarding his latest achievement. By saying that “another President should’ve got him,” he was clearly turning a victory for the U.S. into his latest attack on Democrats for his upcoming campaign. Bearing that in mind, how is Baghdadi’s death going to affect Trump’s upcoming campaign?

“It is important for every president to showcase their accomplishments and one of them is certainly the killing or capture of a major terrorist leader- somebody who is of value for the counterterrorism community. Baghdadi is now one of the most important leaders of terrorist organizations. President Obama claimed credit for the killing of Osama Bin Laden, President George W. Bush claimed credit for killing al-Zarqawi, and so the killing of Baghdadi certainly is going to be a major theme when President Trump goes to the voters and lists his own accomplishments. This is one big accomplishment for this administration.”

Will Trump use the death of Baghdadi as an election tactic?

“It is too early for him to talk about campaign strategies but I am sure that when the campaign comes, he will. I think that President Trump has to think about that and decide on his strategies next year - that's why you see that he was referring to Obama. Normally in campaign strategies, you talk about your opponent in the elections and until now, that hasn’t been apparent. He tries to prepare the electorate for his talking points and this is going to be a major talking point in his upcoming campaign.”

In 2012, Trump went to Twitter and demanded that people “stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden” since “the navy seals” were the ones to conduct the deed. Similarly, the U.S. carried out this latest operation through its special delta forces. Contrary-wise, does this mean that Trump doesn’t deserve the credit for Baghdadi’s death?

“Normally, the best standard to use is someone's own standards and if his standards are that President Obama did not deserve any credit for the killing of Baghdadi because the ones who killed him were U.S. men in arms- which is true- then what goes for Obama goes for Trump.”

By using phrases such as, “he’s dead as a nail,” and, “he died like a dog,” many could argue that Trump’s rhetoric isn’t quite presidential. Other than simply being Trumpian, why use such aggressively barbaric rhetoric during such harsh times?

 “When you defeat an enemy, there are two strategies: One is to make that enemy great so that you show that you are better than them-greater than them… You show your greatness by showing the greatness of the enemy you defeated. Then, there is another strategy in which you really deny your enemy any claim to greatness. In the case of Bin Laden or Baghdadi, I think the second strategy is better because there is no point in making someone like Baghdadi look great where there is nothing great about him. I think President Trump nailed it in this case.”

On Sunday, The Washington Post made one of its most bizarre and hastiest decisions by describing Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar,” practically defending the infamous extremist. Although the well-known publication went on to retract their original comments, a lot of controversy has continued to grow around the inaccurate description and rightly so. How would you describe this incident?

“That was very unfortunate. They changed it but clearly the Washington Post did not get it right. I think in their quest to try and be objective, they missed the point. The Washington Post should not have done so or should have reflected better before making that hasty unthoughtful headline... There’s nothing scholarly about Baghdadi and there's nothing austere about him. He is the polar opposite of what they described him as and that's why they did well when they changed it.”

How will Baghdadi’s death morally affect ISIS members in the region?

“Normally, when the head of a terrorist organization-or any other organization that works as an opposition or a violent militant group- you see two things: Either you see a strong leader that emerges after him, that will take the largest group, or there’s the group split... There are many hopefuls who want to take charge and lead the group and so fragmentation often happens. In the case of Baghdadi, we don't really know anyone who was going to succeed him; an heir apparent… This is not a group that was grooming somebody to lead. They were all about Baghdadi and their loyalty to him and so I definitely expect fragmentation. I don't think that any retaliation will take place but the group is still there- the ideology is still there and although ISIS was defeated, the ideology and a lot of its sleeper cells are not.”

Trump went from appearing to be flustered and upset at Turkey for its attack on the Kurds to practically praising his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan, for his involvement in Baghdadi’s death. Where does this leave the relationship between the U.S./Turkey and the U.S./Kurds?

“Turkey is always going to be relevant and important for the United States. It’s a NATO member and it’s a country that is very important- geostrategically and geopolitically- in the region. U.S.-Turkish relations are about much more than just an episodic moment. With the Kurds, President Trump has already made up his mind and his statements clear: The U.S. has done everything it could have done for the Kurds and now is their time to find ways to survive on their own.

That is the new doctrine of President Trump when it comes to the region. He doesn't want to use direct U.S. military help to solve every problem in the in the region. he is selecting certain issues that he will involve U.S. military in- Saudi Arabia, the fight in Yemen, definitely support for Iraq, even though the Iraqis are doing all of the heavy lifting. I don't see Trump going against the Turks for the Kurds.”

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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