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Officials warn ISIS still a threat as it regroups following death of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The Islamic State leader was killed in a US-led raid in Syria at the weekend.

Baghdadi during a rare public appearance at a mosque in 2014.
Baghdadi during a rare public appearance at a mosque in 2014.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

OFFICIALS HAVE WARNED the Islamic State still poses a threat following the death of the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by the US military.

The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi leaves the Islamic State without an obvious leader, a major setback for an organization that in March was forced by American troops and Kurdish forces out of the last portion of its self-declared “caliphate”.

The militant group rose from the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq after that group’s defeat by US-led forces in 2008 – and remains a dangerous threat in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

“The bottom line is: this puts the enemy on its heels, but the ideology – and this sounds so cliched – it is not dead,” said Chris Costa, a former senior director for counter-terrorism for the National Security Council in the Trump administration.

Key to the Islamic States is its “kill where you are” ethos, encouraging a far-flung network of followers, including those in the United States, to commit violence however and wherever they can. That jihadist message is likely to live on, even with the death of al-Baghdadi.

That means US forces, perhaps in reduced numbers, will continue hunting and attacking key Islamic State targets, even as Trump says he’s committed to a 2016 campaign pledge to bring them home and end “endless wars” started under his predecessors.

Al-Baghdadi was the target of the secretly planned operation that was approved by Trump, who said that no US personnel were lost in the mission.

In a press conference, the president said al-Baghdadi ignited an explosive vest after being chased into a tunnel by US forces. Trump said the terrorist leader had taken three of his children into the tunnel with him and they were also killed in the explosion. 

He said al-Baghdadi ran into the tunnel “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way”.

Trump earlier this month went from declaring a near-complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria to deciding that some must stay to keep eastern Syria’s oil fields from falling back into the hands of the Islamic State. Trump also agreed to keep about 150 US troops at a base in southern Syria.

At the press conference on Sunday, he also said ISIS is “very, very strongly looking to build again”. 

This, he said, explains why Baghdadi was in the Idlib province of northwestern Syria, an area largely controlled by a rival group – the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – although other jihadi groups sympathetic to Islamic State are also there.

“Well, that’s where he was trying to rebuild from because that was the place that made most sense, if you’re looking to rebuild,” Trump said. 

He added that other countries, including Russia, should carry on the fight against ISIS, but there is no indication that US forces will abandon their mission any time soon.

“Our job is to stay on top of that and to make sure that we continue to take out their leadership,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on ABC’s “This Week.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said five years of US and coalition efforts inside Syria have not eliminated the Islamic State threat.

“While the death of its leader is a tremendous blow for the group, about 10,000 ISIS fighters remain in the region and will continue to carry out guerrilla attacks and seek new territory,” he said.

According to defense officials in Iraq and Afghanistan who study Islamic State and have watched its movements, the group is growing in power and numbers outside of Syria.

Its flagship affiliate is known as ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan, and it is expanding into other countries, including Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Many of those affiliates have liaisons in the terror group’s hub in eastern Afghanistan.

In addition to conducting high-profile attacks inside Afghanistan, the official said the Islamic State has also already proven its ability to inspire and enable terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan, including a deadly one in Sweden.

It is this global reach that makes the Islamic State a continuing worry, including for U.S. officials seeking to protect the homeland.

Al-Baghdadi served as a direct inspiration for extremists in the United States, where multiple jihadists in the last five years invoked his name as they carried out deadly acts of violence.

Omar Mateen, the gunman who in 2016 killed 49 people inside an Orlando, Florida nightclub, pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi during a 911 call in which he identified himself as an Islamic soldier.

Months earlier, Tashfeen Malik, who along with her husband killed 14 people at a San Bernardino, California, holiday party, took to Facebook after her massacre was already underway to declare her support for al-Baghdadi.

That voice, the face associated with it – the name in particular – it’s all directly linked to those in the United States who have pledged allegiance to him so as to conduct attacks in the group’s name,” said Joshua Geltzer, a former senior counter-terrorism official in the Obama administration.

With reporting from AFP. 

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