Washington Wednesday: U.S. counterterrorism

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 30th of October, 2019. Glad to have you along today. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today on The World and Everything in It: U.S. counter-terrorism policy.

Today, we’ll talk about the significance of the death of the most-wanted man on earth: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS and the head of its so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq that at one point equaled the size of Britain.

Here to talk about what this means and where U.S. counter-terrorism policy goes from here is Ambassador Alberto Fernandez. He spent three decades with the U.S. State Department and served as the department’s first Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. He’s now president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. 

Ambassador, good morning to you.

FERNANDEZ: Good morning. Happy to be with you. 

EICHER: OK, first, let’s start with the basics. Who was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and how did he become so influential in the world of radical Islam? 

FERNANDEZ: Well, he was a revolutionary ideologue, an extremist Islamist, Salafi jihadist, an Iraqi who in the turmoil of the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq connected with a rising insurgent terrorist organization in Iraq connected to al-Qaeda and rose through the ranks. The Americans killed the previous leadership and he became the leader of what was the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010. 

His revolutionary thing that he did was to take the jihadist movement one step further and announce with great fanfare the reestablishment of the long-lost caliphate and claim universal sovereignty over all Muslims worldwide—something that al-Qaeda had never done. 

EICHER: While Baghdadi’s name might not be as recognizable as Osama bin Laden’s, some analysts are saying his death is actually more significant. What do you think? 

FERNANDEZ: Well, I mean, it’s kind of apples and oranges. Bin Laden was kind of the founding member of an enterprise which is global jihadism, right? He took it global in a very, very powerful way both before and obviously with 9/11. 

What Badhdadi did, he took it to the next level. He took the al-Qaeda brand of terrorism, the al-Qaeda brand of doing this kind of jihad and violence and he brought it into the 21st century in a very real way, taking it far beyond the way al-Qaeda had done. 

So he was also, again, it’s hard to say one is more important than the other. One came before the other, but they were both extremely important in the development of the global jihadist movement. 

EICHER: It’s so interesting to hear you talk in almost marketing language about the brand of Islamic terrorism. I have understood that Baghdadi was more of a tactician than Bin Laden. And maybe that’s what you mean by apples and oranges? 

FERNANDEZ: Actually, I don’t think he was a tactician. Bin Laden was, you know, earlier. But Baghdadi was revolutionary in what he tried to do. He basically took the al-Qaeda brand and introduced a series of new elements to it. 

Number one, the declaration of the caliphate. 

Number two, the establishment of a state, an actual state. Al-Qaeda had control of territory here and there, but nothing like what ISIS controlled—which controlled cities of—two cities with over a million people in them. So it had the look and the feel of a real state on the ground. 

And number three, he and his minions revolutionized the way that jihadists did propaganda. 

So a lot more than a tactician, like I said. He took it to the next level, unfortunately, for his victims and for the world. 

EICHER: It is striking to me that this big development came so closely on the heels of the remaining American troops pulling out of Syria. Do you see that move as related to then finding and killing Baghdadi? 

FERNANDEZ: Some people have tried to kind of force that to try to attack the administration, you know, by saying we got him and we’re leaving. I think that’s a little forced. U.S. interest in what was happening in that part of Syria, of like northwestern Syria, the Idlib area goes back years because it was an al-Qaeda cell there—there was the so-called Khorasan group. 

And as far as we know, the raiders, the brave American soldiers who carried out this operation didn’t launch from Syria. They launched from elsewhere. So, of course, there’s a connection to Syria. There’s a connection to the Syrian Kurds, the SDF were very helpful in this operation, as were other players in the region. 

And so I kind of reject making that obvious connection of we’re leaving and we couldn’t have done this otherwise. Because this is an area, the whole region is an area we look at and we look at developing relationships, intelligence relationships, and others to be able to extract information to carry out these types of bold strikes. This is something we did before. We did before we were ever in northeastern Syria and we will continue to do that in the future, I’m sure. 

EICHER: So, when we killed Osama bin Laden, that was obviously not the end of radical jihadism and so it’s probably not much of a stretch to suggest that with the death of Baghdadi that that won’t be the end of it either. 

So what do you think is next for the United States? What’s next for our counter-terrorism policy? 

FERNANDEZ: Well, I think there’s two things. There are two dangers—one likely, one less likely. The danger is, of course, that we will kind of declare victory and go home. I don’t mean literally, I mean figuratively. 

After the death of Bin Laden, there was a bit of complacency in the Obama administration. You may remember the notorious “JV team” remark, which was about ISIS in February, January-February of 2012, which was, of course, sadly wrong. 

So the first temptation is for us to say we killed the world’s number one terrorist, we’re leaving, and we’ve won—kind of mission accomplished. That’s very dangerous because Salafi jihadism as an ideology, global jihadist movement is not going anywhere. So that’s kind of the big danger. 

The other one, which is maybe less likely, is that slippery slope that we’ll over-commit and involve ourselves in things that are not the core issue, which is counter-terrorism. That’s where you get involved in things like nation-building and kind of having a large footprint on the ground, which is also not what we want to do. 

So the challenge for the United States is to find that happy middle ground where we’re engaged, we’re active, we’re not isolationist, we’re connected with our partners, we’re building all kinds of good relationships. But we’re also not so intrusive, so heavy-handed and heavy on the ground that we become a problem rather than part of the solution. 

EICHER: I’m going to ask you to venture into politics for just a minute because I’m curious about the political implications of something like this. We remember back in 2011, the year before an election, U-S troops killed bin Laden, and the slogan on the campaign trail is “Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive.” 

It always makes its way into American politics one way or another, and here we are again, another year before an election, similar situation. Do you think that the death of Baghdadi will be something that will be talked about much on the campaign trail by the president or even his opponent? 

FERNANDEZ: Look, I think it was a victory for the United States. It’s something for us to celebrate—a military victory, a defeating of a horrible person, a mass murderer and a rapist who killed Americans and all kinds of innocent people. I think there’s nothing wrong with the United States taking credit for that and the administration should be happy about taking credit for it. Full credit for it. 

Now, with any victory, with any success, there’s always the danger of overselling it, of exaggerating it. I think that happened in 2012 with the previous administration. It’s always a danger that this administration will do the same thing. 

I think the cautionary note is to remember what happened before, which is that they celebrated, and then ISIS came about. And it may not have affected politics, but it certainly set the stage. You may remember that in the 2016 election, the fact that ISIS was this powerful entity was an issue. And the Democrats’ claim that they had defeated al-Qaeda, defeated ISIS, came back to haunt them. 

So you have to be careful. Claim credit, be happy in your success, but don’t overdo it.

EICHER: Ambassador Alberto Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Ambassador, thanks for your insights and thank you so much for your time.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Militant video, File) This file image made from video posted on a militant website Saturday, July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. 

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