The Assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Tom Stevenson

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former caliph of the Islamic State, was assassinated by United States special forces at the weekend. He was discovered in a compound in Barisha in the Idlib province of northern Syria a few miles from the Turkish border. The raiding party took off from an airbase in Anbar in Iraq in eight helicopters. The special forces team blew the side off the building in which Baghdadi had been staying (apparently for some time). The US claims he killed himself by detonating an explosive vest. The soldiers brought back pieces of the corpse and confirmed it was him with biometric tests.

Donald Trump announced many of the operational particulars personally, including details of Baghdadi’s last moments that Trump is unlikely to have known. He also thanked the Russian, Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Syrian Kurdish governments for their co-operation. Baghdadi took great efforts to ensure his personal security; the task became more difficult after IS lost the ability to hold and govern territory in 2018. The CIA effort to track him down appears to have been aided by the capture of one or two of his deputies. Iraqi intelligence say that Ismail al-Ithawi gave them information about Baghdadi’s habits. The capture of Abu Suleiman al-Khalidi by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, may also have helped lead to the Barisha raid.

Baghdadi was born in the Samarra countryside in Iraq to a family of pastoral farmers who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad. As a young man he had been an aloof theology student and football coach. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq he was imprisoned for ten months in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. He emerged a fanatic of the jihadist insurgency. In 2006 the US assassinated the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s successor was assassinated by the US in April 2010. Baghdadi took control of the group a month later.

His death does not spell the end of IS. In rural Iraq and eastern Syria it still engages in extortion, raiding and kidnapping. Its affiliates in West Africa and Egypt are still dangerous. The US claims to be tracking six potential Baghdadi successors. In August, the State Department offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the capture of three IS leaders. In the Arabic press there are reports that Baghdadi had appointed one of his deputies, Abdullah Qardash, to take over directing the group’s operations. Like Baghdadi, Qardash is a former detainee of Camp Bucca.


  • 29 October 2019 at 1:48pm
    Barney says:
    "Assassination"? There's excellent evidence he was a war criminal. When cornered, he killed himself. When Nazis officials killed themselves rather than face trial, we didn't call that "assassination".

  • 29 October 2019 at 2:29pm
    Niall Lynch says:
    I did not realize that Abu Bakr was an elected official. So he could not be described as "assassinated". If the author believes he was elected democratically to slaughter, I look to him/her/they to provide the evidence. Otherwise, this is simply wrong. If Anders Brievik is killed, would that count as an "assassination"?

  • 29 October 2019 at 4:31pm
    Heather Van Waldick says:
    I strongly disagree with the repeated use of "assassination". These men weren't government officials, they were terrorist thugs responsible for hideous acts of torture and murder. Saying they were assassinated gives them legitimacy, which they absolutely do not deserve.

    Also, the implication that it was Baghdadi's time in Camp Bucca is what radicalized him is inaccurate. I won't defend US policies regarding enemy combatants since the Patriot Act, but Baghdadi's fundamentalist beliefs and terrorist credentials were already established by the time he was detained.

  • 29 October 2019 at 6:55pm
    Thomas Jones (blog editor) says:
    In no sense does using the word 'assassination' imply that Baghdadi wasn't a war criminal, or that he was an elected official, or that he wasn't a terrorist. It implies that he was a public figure, that his killing was organised, and that it was done for military, political or religious reasons. All of which is true. Saying that someone was assassinated doesn't 'give them legitimacy'. The first recorded use of the noun 'assassination' in English is in 'Macbeth': King Duncan wasn't an 'elected official'. The first recorded use of the verb 'assassinate' occurs in Edmund Bolton's 1619 translation of Florus' 'Roman Histories': Brutus and Cassius, Bolton writes, 'conspired to assassinate' Julius Caesar. He wasn't elected either. There's nothing wrong with saying that Domitian was assassinated, monster though he was. Other historical victims of assassination – good, bad or indifferent, 'legitimate' or otherwise – include Thomas Becket, Tsar Alexander II, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Rasputin, Trotsky and Reinhard Heydrich.

    • 30 October 2019 at 11:37pm
      Barney says: @ Thomas Jones (blog editor)
      "his killing was organised" - no it wasn't. He killed himself, and, apparently, two of his children.

    • 31 October 2019 at 10:12am
      DJL says: @ Thomas Jones (blog editor)
      But the title remains slightly misleading - if anything it should say that it was a planned assassination, and as a matter of fact he wasn't actually assassinated.

    • 7 November 2019 at 2:15am
      eeffock says: @ Barney
      seriously? the US military leveled the site with explosives. look at the aerial photographs Trump bragged about.

  • 30 October 2019 at 1:36pm
    Reader says:
    "After the invasion and occupation of Iraq he was imprisoned for ten months in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. He emerged a fanatic of the jihadist insurgency."

    If this is true, the Americans first created a monster, and then spent 15 years tracking down and killing him (presumably I'm allowed to use the neutral word "kill" in this connection without inviting criticism).

    Abu Ghraib was a notorious centre for torture and abuse of prisoners by American soldiers, against all the norms of international behaviour, and even common sense. Perhaps now the Americans might learn to treat their prisoners with a modicum of human decency, so as not to create monsters in the first place? But that would admittedly require them to learn from experience, and that is something for which history does not give much encouragement.

  • 30 October 2019 at 3:24pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I’m in agreement with the idea that the words “assassin” and “assassinate” should be construed as “value-neutral”, but I don’t think that’s about to happen, given the present-day pejorative connotations of the word. After all, if the Allies had been able to suborn someone close to Hitler to shoot him or blow him up, he would have been assassinated, but many people around the world would have thought that to be a very good thing, indeed. If we had dropped a bomb on Hitler’s Bergdorf complex in the mountains and blew him up, would that have been an assassination, or, rather, the killing of an active enemy combatant? (As head of the nation’s armed forces, and one who played a hands-on role in all levels of combat planning, Hitler was certainly a legitimate military target, not just a political one.)
    It’s interesting to see how such words are applied to different people, depending on their perceived status (including “legitimacy” as leaders). Was King Charles I “judicially assassinated” or justifiably executed? In many cases it seems OK to use “murdered” or just plain old (much more value-free) “killed”. I think “mass murder of the Jews” is better than “Holocaust”, which strikes me as too learned and somewhat abstract, referring to a word originally designed to mean religious sacrifice of a large number of animals. Similarly “genocide” has become diluted in its meaning on account of overuse and extension by analogy (as in “cultural genocide”). People select a particular word to make some kind of point. When Kirov was shot back in the 1930s, Stalin preferred “assassinated” because he wished to have the public believe that the deed was part of a wide-reaching anti-government plot. Many historians, however, have come to the conclusion that Kirov’s murderer was a demoralized, alcoholic, cuckolded man who had purely personal motives, i.e., Kirov as a seducer of his wife and also as head of the local Party organization that had ‘mistreated” and disrespected the murderer. Others imply that Stalin himself was behind the murder, once again making it an “assassination”.
    The etymology of the word refers to “hashish-eaters” who belonged to a murderous Islamic sect (or cult) during the era of the Crusades, and their targets might have been anyone, including rivals of the leader of the sect. Obviously we are not going to revert to using the word only when it describes "a killing by drug-crazed cult members".

    • 31 October 2019 at 11:16am
      Joe Morison says: @ Timothy Rogers
      The etymology you give is more legend than certainty, but it’s clear that what is required for a killing to be an assassination is that the victim is killed because of their public status (if Melania stabbed Donald because of his latest infidelity that would not be an assassination; if she did it because she had become convinced democracy’s survival depended on it, it would). It’s also clear that as long as the victim is a public figure, it matters not whether their role is that of hero or villain.

  • 31 October 2019 at 10:55am
    Joe Morison says:
    Very strange to get so many posts so quickly making the same utterly specious points. Suspecting that they might be US citizens (what could have given me that idea?), I double checked with Merriam-Webster, but, no, they are as clear as the OED: an assassination is, “murder by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons: the act or an instance of assassinating someone (such as a prominent political leader).” No mention in either dictionary of the victim having to have a status that makes their murder particularly reprehensible. (For the OED, it’s to kill “esp. a public figure such as a political or religious leader”).

    Then there is the point that he blew himself up as opposed to being directly killed by a US operative. This would only be relevant if the US mission’s prime objective was to capture Baghdadi. Given previous US behaviour, this seems unlikely: although it was never explicitly stated, the mission that killed bin Laden was fairly obviously an assassination; the unofficial reason given was that such a high profile prisoner would be more trouble than he was worth, the same applies to Baghdadi. (I’d also say that as Baghdadi had every reason to believe he’d have been tortured if captured, I’m not sure that the option was a viable one even if had been on offer.)

    But why the squeamishness? The US assassinates its military/political enemies the whole time through drone strikes. We know that there were at least 540 ordered by Obama entailing thousands of civilian deaths, and that under Trump the number has risen as dramatically as the transparency about the program has obscured.

    Why the squeamishness and why three people all making the same dud points to try and ameliorate it?

    • 31 October 2019 at 11:34am
      Barney says: @ Joe Morison
      As you point out, the OED defines it as "murder", ie a crime. There is a criticism of it in the usage and definition. I'm sure the Americans were happy with his death, but they did also take two people alive in the operation.

      "Squeamishness"? Well, since al Baghdadi was responsible for genocide, and the post makes no mention of that, I think the squeamishness is more from Tom. You can't trace his hatred of the Yazidis to the Americans.

      And yes, I'm British.

    • 31 October 2019 at 1:14pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Joe Morison
      Mr. Morison is on the wrong track, though he’s right about the reasons behind worries about ‘correct use’ of the word “assassinate” (the etymology of which is not in dispute, in spite of his off-the-cuff remark about that). Personally, I’m not squeamish about the fact that American officials plan and carry out targeted killings of individuals, call that what you will. I recognize this as a fact, while knowing it is often unjustified or futile in its consequences and possibly criminal, though we have no widely accepted ‘court of last appeal’ to make that judgment. I believe that many of the drone strikes are crimes, not so the killing of Baghdadi. As to transparency, we citizens (or the Brits—or Russians or North Koreans, the list goes on—in similar cases) are not going to get that because these actions will be veiled by secrecy rules that characterize all intelligence and military organizations – another deplorable fact of life, for which no one at present has a good remedy.

      Did Baghdadi blow himself up? Possibly, but if he hadn’t done this, he would have been shot for the same reason Osama bin Laden was: the messiness of captivity status and/or a trial (for which any US agency involved obviously had no ‘legal standing’ for conducting such a trial; but then who does?). So, a bloodthirsty murderer was murdered (or assassinated). Another aspect of the case is how it fits into the public-relations spin that glorifies such ‘special ops’ actions, with some of the participants making a little dough by ‘coming out’ and writing (or talking on TV) about what they did. The “glory’ is grabbed at by any high-ranking politician involved in authorizing such actions. It’s all part of a publicity circus, where the Hollywood-style action is the main thing and its political consequences are ignored.

      As to the US taking two prisoners, one of them seems to be the ‘insider’ who was reporting to the Kurds, who passed the information along to the CIA. Again, we don’t know the accuracy or full details on this. A Kurdish army general has been interviewed about this, with the piece being shown over and over again on American TV. Journalists, no matter how dedicated or intelligent, will have a hard time getting to the whole truth in this case.

    • 3 November 2019 at 6:34am
      Joe Morison says: @ Timothy Rogers
      On the etymology of ‘assassin’:

    • 3 November 2019 at 6:45am
      Joe Morison says: @ Barney
      Fair enough, Barney. Although, it’s worth pointing out that dictionaries aren’t usually keen on ascribing moral value - they’ll point out that the word is used by some as a term denoting value, but they always give a morally neutral definition. In the case of ‘murder’ it’s that the killing is illegal - that’s what’s important to assassination, not whether it’s good or bad. (And I entirely accept your Britishness, it was just a bit of a coincidence you all making similar points so quickly.)

  • 1 November 2019 at 2:15pm
    Reader says:
    Amid all the fuss about semantics, I notice that there has been no reply to my point that the treatment of Baghdadi might have been responsible for radicalising him in the first place, and that if we want to avoid a bitter harvest, we should avoid sowing it in the first place.

    I'm not taking a stand by the way on whether Abu Ghraib really did create a monster: that was not my suggestion, but it was the key (to my mind) suggestion of the article. It may be that Baghdadi was a sociopath and fanatic who would have did what he did anyway.

    Whatever we think might be the answer, this seems to me the kind of causal question that we should be looking at, and not debating what description to use for the act of ending his life. How typical of our culture that we should be so concerned about words and so indifferent to facts.

    For what it's worth, I am very glad he died, and if I had had the chance to do it, would happily have killed him myself. So this is nothing about being "soft on terrorism". When people try to explain the causes of violent radicalism, there is always an outcry about not "excusing terrorism". Finding causes for terrorism is no more to excuse it than finding causes for cancer is to excuse cancer. If we do not learn from the mistakes made in dealing with cases such as Baghdadi, we are condemned to repeat them.

  • 5 November 2019 at 6:49pm
    Thomas Chamberlin says:
    Barbaric mouth-breathing uneducated American here. My pitifully provincial grasp of English is colored by Spanish, in which the words asesinar and asesino = murder and murderer, respectively. Even if it were direct instead of suicide, this kill definitely doesn't fall under that category.

    After seeing a fraction of the many beheadings, burnings, mass killings and mass raping that Baghdadi led and inspired, most of which were perpetrated against indigenous peoples, I have little patience for pedantic hand wringing. Get a grip people; the guy was a monster and the world is better off without him.

  • 5 November 2019 at 9:46pm
    Kenneth E. MacWilliams says:
    I stopped to read this only because of the headline, which turned out to be false advertising in my opinion. Mentioning OED historical references regarding the meaning of assassination is no defense. The current effective meaning of any word is what the majority of educated people consider it to be. I think the majority would agree with me that this was false advertising, and probably intentionally so in order to harvest readers.
    Kenneth E. MacWilliams
    Portland, Maine

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