Michael Leiter, who led the National Counterterrorism Center during the Osama bin Laden raid, offers his thoughts on the Baghdadi operation.
By Alex Ward@AlexWardVoxalex.email@example.com Oct 27, 2019
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world’s most notorious terrorist, died during a raid by US military forces, President Donald Trump said in a Sunday morning press conference. The former ISIS leader’s death put an end to a years-long hunt and gives Trump another major victory in his fight against ISIS.
But Trump went further than just announcing the raid’s success. He answered questions after his dramatic remarks, divulging an astonishing amount about US intelligence and American military operations that could benefit American adversaries in the future. He displayed a deep misunderstanding of how ISIS works.
People look at destroyed houses near the village of Barisha, in Idlib province, Syria, on October 27, 2019, after the US operation targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Ghaith Alsayed/AP
He also denigrated the ISIS leader, saying Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to a dead-end tunnel. While Trump may view those comments as a smart way to delegitimize Baghdadi, many experts say that wasn’t the president’s finest moment.
After Trump gave his remarks, I spoke with Michael Leiter, who directed the US National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011 — including during the Seal Team Six raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound. Leiter and I discussed the potential impacts of the Baghdadi’s death, how the raid was carried out, and what the US can expect going forward. While he says it’s a good thing the terrorist leader is gone, Leiter also says Trump shouldn’t have given away so much information during a televised event.
“Talking about how many aircraft, where the aircraft are flying in, how they’re breaching a building, other technology they can bring to bear, knowledge about the tunnels and the mapping of those tunnels, these are operational details which are only about preening,” he told me.
Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
It’s unabashedly a good thing that the US military killed Baghdadi, right?
Absolutely a good thing.
What effect does killing the leader of a terrorist group like ISIS tend to have?
The more centralized an organization is, the more important it is to decapitate the leadership.
There was definitely a time when killing Baghdadi could’ve stopped ISIS’s rise. It’s still important to kill him, because he was an inspirational leader within Syria and beyond. But I do think that the organization has moved well past Baghdadi in the same way that al-Qaeda moved past Osama bin Laden, to some extent.
At this point — seven-plus years after the rise of ISIS — his death is far from a fatal strike against the organization.