Examining What Leader's Death Means To ISIS' Future NPR'S Steve Inskeep talks to Nicholas Rasmussen, ex-director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Examining What Leader's Death Means To ISIS' Future

Examining What Leader's Death Means To ISIS' Future

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NPR'S Steve Inskeep talks to Nicholas Rasmussen, ex-director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


Now, what does the killing of al-Baghdadi mean for U.S. counterterrorism efforts? Nicholas Rasmussen joins us now. He's a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He also served in the National Security Council during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden back in 2011. And he is now acting executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Good morning, sir.

NICHOLAS RASMUSSEN: Good morning. It's good to be here.

INSKEEP: What does al-Baghdadi's death mean so far as you can see?

RASMUSSEN: Well, it certainly is a setback for the organization ISIS, the terrorist organization. But I don't - I wouldn't go too far in claiming how much it actually affects the threat environment that we face from ISIS, both in the region and even around the world. Usually, the business of taking out senior leaders is a necessary but insufficient part of an overall effort to defeat a group or to at least make a terrorist group like ISIS less threatening.

INSKEEP: President Trump, I believe, has said that ISIS is 100% destroyed. You don't agree with that?

RASMUSSEN: Well, I think when he has said that, he has tended to focus on the physical caliphate aspects of ISIS. And that is certainly a claim that the president is making that can be backed up in that ISIS no longer controls the large swath of territory that it controlled across Iraq and Syria that it did in its heyday. None of us who follow terrorism matters or who look at the security situation across the broader Middle East would go so far as to say that ISIS has been defeated. And interestingly, the president didn't go so far as to say that in his remarks yesterday. He was, of course, very evocative in the way he talked about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death. But he did not make any overreaching claims - at least in my mind - with respect to ISIS having been defeated. And so I took some small comfort from that.

INSKEEP: Being on the outside now but being as knowledgeable as you are, what do you make of the circumstances of this raid - first, the timing and, second, the location in northwestern Syria, an area where ISIS had never been strong?

RASMUSSEN: Well, you're exactly right. The location raises a series of questions. And I don't have great answers, but I can at least talk about what the possibilities might be. That area in northwest Syria is an area that is still beyond the control of the Syrian regime and is right now a haven for a number of different extremist groups that are serving as opposition to the Syrian regime. So in that sense, it was territory uncontrolled by the Syrian regime and, therefore, he might view it as a safe place. On the other hand, many of those extremist groups in that part of Syria were actually quite hostile to ISIS. And so that raises some questions. It is along the border, which raises the possibility that perhaps he or members of his family were seeking to get across into Turkey as a means of escaping the conflict zone.

And I guess another alternative explanation might be would there perhaps been potentially some reconciliation efforts underway between ISIS and other extremist groups, including those with ties to al-Qaida, that are resident in that part of northwest Syria? So I imagine we'll learn a lot in coming days, but those are at least a couple of the possibilities.

INSKEEP: So your question is whether there is some kind of terrorist alliance that's coming together here.

RASMUSSEN: Well, one of the things that had always been interesting about ISIS and al-Qaida was the fact that even though they share much of the same narrative about how the world should work, they were always at odds with each other. They had certain ideological differences but not necessarily massive or profound ideological differences. And some analysts suspected that perhaps it was more personality based, or at least in part personality based, that ISIS and al-Qaida were - found themselves to be at odds with each other. With the removal of one of the key personalities, perhaps things are - the door is open for some sort of reconciliation or joining forces between ISIS and other extremist forces tied to al-Qaida.

INSKEEP: And what does it mean that the United States struck just as President Trump was ordering U.S. forces out of Syria?

RASMUSSEN: Well, again, hard to know exactly what drove the timing of this. I'm sure intelligence and the emerging intelligence picture played a large role in it. But it's possible also that the timing was driven by the fact that we're soon to be losing some of our capability - a good bit of our capability - in that part of Syria because of the president's decision to draw down. And so it might be the case that we had to move before we lost some of the access to particularly important territory for our intelligence operatives, for our military forces. So...

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that the United States didn't need the Kurdish forces, for example, to undertake this raid, but they might have benefited from intelligence from various people.

RASMUSSEN: Well, we certainly have benefited tremendously from the partnership with the Kurds - with the Syrian Kurds. And that is something we are choosing to walk away from. That is something the president has decided. And I think most of us looking at this objectively think that is actually not a good move and will leave us less well off in terms of our ability to do this in the future. A thought experiment I thought about yesterday was six months from now, could we do the same kind of operation? And I suspect we could not.

INSKEEP: Mr. Rasmussen, thanks so much.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Nicholas Rasmussen is now acting executive director of the McCain Institute.

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