Baghdadi and bin Laden provide lessons on Turkey and Pakistan

Just as it did with the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the U.S. had to act alone to eliminate terror mastermind Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite a U.S.-led, 80-member Global Coalition that has been fighting ISIS, when it came down to killing the ISIS leader it was Washington and American special operations forces who did the job. 

Unlike bin Laden, who declared war on America in 1996, Baghdadi’s crimes were focused more on Iraq and Syria, though his Islamic State empire became a global threat spreading from Sri Lanka to Nigeria. In both cases, the U.S. faced challenges in dealing with Turkey and Pakistan, two key states on the borders of Syria and Afghanistan, respectively, where the U.S. has been fighting terrorist groups.

The hunt for Baghdadi has many of the hallmarks of the hunt for bin Laden, and it is worth considering what we can learn from both experiences. President Trump says he made capturing or killing the ISIS leader a priority when he took office in January 2017. Indeed, Trump had vowed to defeat ISIS during his presidential campaign and was critical of the Obama administration’s efforts. 

Under Trump, the U.S. pushed ISIS out of Mosul and Raqqa and cornered its fighters in a lonely patch of desert and shrubs near the Euphrates River, where ISIS lost its last territory in March of this year. ISIS has not been defeated — up to 14,000 fighters remain and thousands of ISIS detainees are being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces — but killing Baghdadi was a symbolic and important element of defeating ISIS. 

As with defeating al Qaeda, the initial defeat of ISIS didn’t end the organization. Al Qaeda was pushed out of Afghanistan, and it’s believed that bin Laden escaped to Pakistan during battles at Tora Bora in December 2001. He seemed to vanish until the CIA identified a house in Pakistan’s Abbottabad District in August 2010 where he might be living. The raid that led to his death was chronicled best in the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” The U.S. did not inform Pakistan of its raid, and there was a general feeling that Pakistan had been either “involved or incompetent,” according to former CIA Director Leon Panetta. Pakistan had charged people with crimes for assisting the U.S. in hunting bin Laden.

Like the 2019 raid, the 2011 clandestine raid involved special operations forces and the president watched from Washington. Several men who were with bin Laden, and one woman, were killed. Like Baghdadi, bin Laden lived with family members, including children. Unlike Baghdadi, however, he had holed up for years, rarely moved and, with few outsiders around him, was more isolated than the ISIS leader. 

By the time of bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda had changed greatly, ending its spectacular attacks and morphing into several organizations. One of those was in Iraq, where its footprints would help lead to ISIS. Another piece of al Qaeda took root in Syria and, after the Syrian civil war broke out, became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadist movement that controls much of Idlib. Baghdadi had pretensions to be a “caliph” and run a state, something bin Laden never tried. Baghdadi not only ran a state that was the size of England, his forces committed genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq and sold thousands of women into slavery. An American woman, Kayla Mueller, taken hostage and killed by ISIS, inspired the name for the raid to kill Baghdadi.

As did bin Laden, Baghdadi sought shelter in a region close to an American ally — in Baghdadi’s case, Turkey. Many of the thousands of foreign fighters who joined ISIS came through Turkey in 2014, and some later escaped back to Turkey in 2017 after the ISIS capital of Raqqa fell. Brett McGurk, the former anti-ISIS envoy, has been critical of Turkey’s role. Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups, some of them extremists, are accused of committing human rights abuses, including during Turkey’s recent offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria.

In both Turkey and Pakistan, the U.S. found fickle allies, countries that seemed to sympathize with the very religious extremists the U.S. was trying to stop, and which worked with groups in Syria and Afghanistan that were at odds with the U.S. President Trump has called the wars in Syria and Afghanistan America’s “endless wars” and vows the U.S. will leave. Whether the U.S. fully withdraws or not, in both cases the U.S. has been hamstrung by neighboring countries that appear to only pay lip service to being U.S. allies. 

How could Turkey not know that Baghdadi was living in Idlib province in Syria, where Turkey has observation posts and which Turkey controls? He was living almost within shouting distance of the Turkish border when he was caught, in a house that had tunnels that stretched near the border. Iraqi officials even told the Americans that Baghdadi’s wives and brothers had been smuggled to Idlib from Turkey. And how could Pakistan not have known that bin Laden was living so close to its military academy in Abbottabad in 2011?

It is revealing that the U.S. cannot trust its allies with the sort of intelligence that led to the killing of the most high-profile terrorists of the past 20 years. With Baghdadi’s death, the U.S. must re-examine how to achieve its goals in Syria or Afghanistan if neighboring countries are not working with it — and might even be working against Washington. 

Killing bin Laden and Baghdadi were tactical successes. But U.S. strategy requires a world where U.S. allies are truly allies. Perhaps the U.S. needs to better confront countries such as Turkey and Pakistan if they are not helpful in the war on terror.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.

Tags Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Afghanistan Al-Qaeda Donald Trump ISIS Osama bin Laden Pakistan Syria Terrorism Turkey War on Terror

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video