What's Next For ISIS NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Syria expert Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute about news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a U.S. operation.

What's Next For ISIS

What's Next For ISIS

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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Syria expert Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute about news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a U.S. operation.


As we've heard, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed by U.S. forces in a raid in northern Syria. The death of Baghdadi was confirmed by President Trump in an announcement at the White House, followed by an extensive news conference. We're joined now by Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute here in D.C.

Good morning.

PAUL SALEM: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So your reaction to the news of al-Baghdadi's death?

SALEM: I think it's very significant. It took 10 years after 2001 to get Osama bin Laden. It took five years after the declaration of the caliphate of the Islamic State in 2014 to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Definitely, leadership matters. These were both very massive figures, both in their abilities to organize, mobilize, lead and keep their organizations adept, and they were both definitely symbols of a struggle. So I think it's very important. It's very significant.

It's significant, certainly, for the United States in general and for President Trump, but also very welcome news for Europe in general, for the countries of the Middle East and maybe, as the president himself said, of the Russians and other countries in Asia. Of course, this doesn't mean at all the end of ISIS, but it is a major development.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I was going to ask you that. Mark Esper, the acting secretary of defense, called this a devastating blow to ISIS. Was it? I mean, is it - can they reconstitute?

SALEM: Well, they had suffered the biggest devastating blow with the loss of their caliphate. What distinguished ISIS from al-Qaida was the fact that they had been - between 2014 and 2017, they had been able to build an actual physical pseudo-state, which they called the Islamic State, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring himself a caliph. This ability to do so was really what distinguished them and what drew thousands of followers to their example.

So I would say the biggest blow was their loss of their physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which both Presidents Obama and Trump, as well as the Kurds and the Iraqis and other allies, were essential in. This is also a very major blow. It's interesting that it seems that al-Baghdadi was in this part of Syria, which was not traditionally ISIS territory, possibly...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was going to ask about that. Yeah. I mean, there are still many questions. How did al-Baghdadi cross from near Iraq, where he was believed to be, to Idlib, near the Turkish border? It seems many people, like yourself, are asking that question.

SALEM: The two questions - one is why he was there. It seems that he was meeting with a group called Huras al-Din, which is really the al-Qaida sort of representative, if you will, in Syria, probably - possibly exploring cooperation or even potential merger. There are other sort of former al-Qaida splinter groups who are very hostile to ISIS and others who may have been looking to explore a - you know, a cooperation or merger. So that indicates that ISIS, as we know, was certainly on its back foot, had lost a lot of territory, had lost the caliphate and was already turning more into a terrorist network like al-Qaida than anything like an actual state.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because al-Qaida and ISIS were often at odds.

SALEM: They were at odds because they were competing for the same audience. They were competing, in a sense, for a similar brand. It's the same sort of ideological provenance. ISIS was able to take it a couple of steps further by actually declaring and establishing a caliphate and certainly stole al-Qaida's thunder. Al-Qaida had, you know, dominated the global jihadist conversation after 9/11. Then ISIS was able to dominate that by establishing a caliphate. So certainly, they were rivals not in the ideological sense, but in the sense that they're rivals from the same camp, as it were.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You watched this extensive news conference that President Trump gave. What was - surprised you most about the details that President Trump divulged?

SALEM: Maybe the most surprising thing was his - that he gave - he thanked the Syrian nation, as you said, which effectively means the Syrian state, which means the Assad regime. That - you know, it's not maybe momentous in the terms of killing Baghdadi and its impact on ISIS, but it's the first signal since maybe 2011 - or certainly, late 2011, early 2012 - that the U.S. might be indirectly working with - dealing with this Assad regime. I think that's something to watch very closely.

Otherwise, it's very interesting, and it's certainly the case that the Kurds were helpful in providing intelligence, since his - Baghdadi's movements from wherever he was into that northwest may have been picked up by some of the Kurdish networks. Certainly, the Iraqis were very helpful, as were the Russians in allowing the overflight and the Turks, which have a lot of influence in the area. And they have a lot of influence with some of those local groups who don't like ISIS, which may have also provided some tips. I think it is interesting in the wake of his, you know, pivot on the Kurds...


SALEM: ...To go back and thank them for their help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Paul Salem with the Middle East Institute. We'll have to leave it there.

Thank you so much.

SALEM: Thank you, Lulu.

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