US President Donald Trump took a victory lap on Sunday in announcing the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in a US raid in northern Syria, an operation the president will use to shore up his counter-terrorism and national security credentials.
Mr Trump’s first teased about the killing in a tweet on Saturday night that said: “Something very big has just happened”. It was posted nine hours before the US military and intelligence confirmed the identity and DNA of Al Baghdadi.
The tweet reflects the president’s eagerness to take full credit for the operation. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward,” Mr Trump announced from the White House.
The operation's timing presents a window of opportunity for Mr Trump to defend his partial pullout from north-east Syria, boosts his credentials in fighting ISIS before the 2020 election gets under way, and lays the grounds for counter-terrorism mechanisms after the US leaves in Syrian territory.
The raid was "a month-long intelligence operation", according to a US official quoted by The Guardian, but its timing appears related to the US withdrawal in Syria. "Senior military officials had decided that, with American forces largely withdrawing from Syria, commandos should take action quickly to try to kill or capture senior terrorists in north-west Syria before the United States lost that ability," the New York Times reported on Sunday.
While Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria this month was criticised by members of Congress from both parties and Democratic presidential rival on the premise that it would help ISIS regroup. The operation provides – at least temporarily – an antithesis to this narrative. In his announcement, the US president said the killing of Al Baghdadi was his biggest national security objective.
The death of the ISIS leader is a positive moment for Mr Trump as he battles an impeachment inquiry by Democrats in the House of Representatives and low approval ratings, averaging 41.6 per cent, according to Real Clear Politics. While Al Baghdadi is not a household name in the US like that of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US forces in 2011, he is still a known and vilified figure whose organisation claimed responsibility for attacks in the country and for decapitating Americans in Syria. The State Department offered a $25 million (Dh91.8m) bounty for information leading to him.
The operation also provides clues to US counter-terrorism mechanisms in Syria. Reports that US forces flew from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and that Iraqi authorities helped acquire intelligence underscore the importance of the US presence in neighbouring Iraq. Mr Trump thanked the Syrian, Iraqi, Russian, and Turkish governments as well as Kurdish forces for their help with the operation.
The presence of Al Baghdadi in Idlib, which the former US envoy against ISIS, Brett McGurk called “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11", could be a prelude to similar operations in the area by US force alone or in co-ordination with Russia, which controls the the airspace over the rebel-held province.
For now, Al Baghdadi’s demise is a short-term boost for Mr Trump’s national security and counter-terrorism agenda that he will likely utilise in seeking re-election next year. It will also shore up support for his partial withdrawal from Syria and for counter-terrorism arrangements and intelligence-sharing with Iraq and Russia.