Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Is Dead. What Now?

America is unlikely to learn the lessons of its shortsighted foreign policy.

Since ISIS came to prominence, messaging about its campaign in Syria — and later in Iraq — was always muddied in the intricate machinations of American partisan politics, but a thing to surely rile up both critics of the Trump administration and its supporters alike, is the death of yet another figurehead of terrorism. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the de facto leader of ISIS by a great number of metrics, but ISIS has become less of a terrorist organization in the traditional sense, and has now morphed into a vessel where disillusioned Muslims spill away their grievances with Western influence on sovereign majority-Muslim territories, only in this case, it’s done through murdering innocents in cold-blood and calling it godly justice.

The death of al-Baghdadi shouldn’t be undermined–if anything, it’ll throw off many ISIS combatants who joined in on the promise that his duty to lead a would-be Islamic Caliphate is one bestowed by the divine. Now that al-Baghdadi is dead, his credibility — and by extension that of the movement he lead — is greatly diminished, just like when Osama bin Laden bit the bullet as leader of Al-Qaeda before him. The problem though, that much like Al-Qaeda, through process of natural coalescing around a common goal, insurgents will find a valid pretext to upset civil order no matter how convoluted, and will rebel against America’s intentions to forcefully impose it.

Terrorism in the Middle-East is a fickle matter because no single party is truly responsible for it — despite what terrorists themselves might say. Syria’s situation is far more complex than that of Afghanistan or Iraq — the state regime is backed by a proxy coalition of Iranian and Russian military assistance, and the US-backed Kurdish forces were leading a successful assault against ISIS’ waning influence right up until Trump decided to pull the plug on their alliance. In fact, reports suggest that the Trump-ordered killing of al-Baghdadi happened in spite of the United States pulling away from the region, and was definitely not facilitated by Trump’s recent concessions to Turkey.

Why this is a pale victory for the United States has everything to do with the shortsightedness of its foreign policy, and just how much emphasis it puts on immediate results and the appearance of triumph rather than its material impact. Al-Baghdadi’s death will occupy the news cycle for a good while before forever disappearing into the ether, all-the-while ISIS is thinking through methods to recoup morale and proceed as if nothing of significance happened. America’s poor judgement on when to intervene has always made it incredibly hard to deem any of their significant foreign policy engagements as anything other than imperialistic–the United States has historically embraced its role as the policeman of the world, waltzing into conflicts — and sometimes stoking their own — to protect their own interests.

In the case of Iraq, that reaction was definitely a touch more than was necessary, leaving the country in a state of disarray amid the removal of authoritarian oligarch Saddam Hussein, cascading into its own campaign of recruitment for insurgency groups within the region. Conversely for Syria, many took issue with Obama’s reticence to embrace a more aggressive approach to staving off the spread of ISIS within it, and before eyes could blink, their tussle with Bashar al-Assad left millions displaced with neighboring countries footing the bill of their welcome.

The legacy of a still-undefeated ISIS will definitely be that of vilifying Muslims, first and foremost. The systemic demonization of Muslims in the wake of 9/11 by the Bush administration, swiftly continuing into the Trump era with its Muslim ban and numerous attacks on Congress freshwomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib is nothing we couldn’t predict. What’s however disheartening, is that American military presence overseas still looks at the metric of civilizational conflict between it and islamist insurgency groups in terms all but comprehensive–both are fighting for territory and influence, but if America’s actions are at least partly informed by some form of semi-cogent logic, islamist extremism derives its power precisely from America’s unwillingness to engage with extremism more tacitly, and instead insisting on a response to a centralized organization they never were in the first place.

Filmmaker and activist Deeyah Khan spoke about the roots of extremism with Vox’s Sean Illing, and her work on covering both neo-Nazis and islamist extremists reveals that the relationship between extremist behavior which may then lead to terrorism is much more about a general feeling of estrangement and disillusionment, rather than an infatuation with a given holy book or a set of ideals:

I tried to understand the core psychological draw of these movements. I found that a sense of belonging or purpose was a major factor. These people join these groups and suddenly they have a sense of meaning in life, a belief that they matter, that their voice matters. It’s as though they were once invisible and now they’re seen.

Most of these men get so much attention once they do something horrible, or once they say something horrible. Before that, they’re invisible. And I think there is something really powerful in that, and perhaps that says more about us as a society than it does about them.

Because American foreign policy is so narrow in its scope that it can’t see this unintuitive connection between extremist impulses and social exile, it’ll continue to water the seeds of extremism and give rise to another leader whenever it chops one off. As we speak, human rights offenses are being committed against Muslims in China, where its minority population are being set into concentration camps for slave labor with widespread sexual torture running rampant; Kashmiris are on the blunt end of a full-on assault by the Modi-led Indian government; the Rohingya have been displaced from their homes due to a mass-disinformation campaign led within Facebook’s poorly-moderated premises; and those who have a cursory chance at making a difference elsewhere are being denied entry because of heinous xenophobic rhetoric.

Trump’s rhetoric has so far been the most effective tool at rallying terrorists around one single common cause. Whether it’s white men feigning a story about an ever-browning America, or Muslims appealed to by America’s constant dehumanization of them, there’s always plenty of dangerous thought to go around. The question now will be, whether America’s content that al-Baghdadi will be plastered all over American newspapers tomorrow morning, or whether they’ll go the extra mile and make sure not another al-Baghdadi pops up. Given the history, the former is unfortunately more likely.