Al-Baghdadi’s death and defeating terrorism

In breaking the news on Sunday, President Donald Trump detailed how the US intelligence, working closely with intelligence agencies of other countries, tenaciously hunted, located and tracked al-Baghdadi,  and eventually sent in elite special forces in an audacious raid in hostile territory to kill or capture the brutal jihadist. It was a resounding success, and the man whose terror franchise, the Islamic State, shook the world, capturing large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 to declare a caliphate and himself as “caliph,” perished. From there, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria initiated a brutal reign over the terror “state” and beyond, featuring beheadings, crucifixion, summary executions, public floggings, amputations and burning people alive, all professionally filmed and posted on multiple sites around the world. Mass enslavement, forced marriages and industrial-scale suicide bombing were part of its repertoire.

Al-Baghdadi took global Islamist terrorism to new heights: beyond terror attacks worldwide, he built a formidable irregular army that defeated Iraq’s US-trained and equipped military, attracted tens of thousands of recruits worldwide, inspired bombings, knife and gun attacks and drivers piling vehicles into crowds in Western cities. He became a rallying figure for jihadists around the world, allured by the dream of a rejuvenated global caliphate that harks back to 7th Century theocratic utopia and the Salafist version of harsh sharia law.

His death and the destruction of the caliphate that preceded it offer many lessons and point the way forward in the global war against terrorism. Nigeria’s political and military leaders, especially, should pay close attention to unfolding events. First, a strategy of relentlessly pursuing and taking out homegrown terrorist leaders should be adopted. This strategy should be brought to bear on Abubakar Shekau, the bloodthirsty Boko Haram leader, and others who have unleashed terror on the North-East for a decade, killed over 100,000 persons, according to a former governor, Kashim Shettima, and had displaced over two million others by 2017. Second, fighting terrorism is and should be intelligence-driven; military pressure is essential to combat territory-seeking insurgent terrorists, but lasting success is guaranteed only when it coordinates with efficient intelligence operations. Finding and killing al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011 and so many terrorists before and since then, were primarily the task of the Central Intelligence Agency that would then call in the military when necessary. Nigeria needs to re-tool its intelligence community to fight this asymmetric war.

In this, robust human intelligence, combined with cutting-edge technology tools, is essential. The intelligence services must acquire the means and skills to monitor and intercept communications, home in on terrorist camps and safe houses and deploy drones for surveillance and strike missions.

Yet, as Western security and diplomatic leaders have been warning, al-Baghdadi’s death, like that of bin Laden with al-Qaeda, is by no means the end of ISIS. Islamist terrorism is driven by an apocalyptic Salafi ideology, espousing a purist, harsh variant of Islamic Sharia law that seeks the creation of a global caliphate to which all Muslims must bear allegiance. They embrace perpetual warfare, excessive cruelty and are ready, indeed crave, for death in the service of jihad as displayed by al-Baghdadi when he detonated his suicide vest.  A report by the US Department of Defence, recalls that ISIS and affiliates operate in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Syria and Iraq with many terror groups around the world claiming allegiance to it. It is reckoned to still have 14,000 to 18,000 fighters in the Middle-East, while many who rallied to its banner from over 85 countries have sneaked back home, awaiting the opportunity to strike.

Nigeria needs to learn also that it can’t defeat terrorism alone: to evict ISIS from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, a US-led coalition, featuring 12 other countries, provided the air power for Iraqi troops, carrying out over 1,250 air strikes and dropping 29,000 munitions.  Partnership with neighbouring countries and the global coalitions is crucial to defeating Boko Haram and eliminating its leaders. Just as intelligence-sharing was critical in finding bin Laden, credit has been given to Kurds, Iraqi, Turkish, Syrian and Russian partners in the al-Baghdadi raid, either for intelligence or for their cooperation during the anti-terrorism operation. Like Chad, Mali and Niger that host foreign commandos and military assets, Nigeria should deepen foreign assistance beyond its current advise-and-train arrangements with the US, the United Kingdom and France and opt for full joint military and intelligence cooperation to end the Boko Haram nightmare. There should be swift trials of arrested suspects. In the first 10 years after 9/11, security agencies in 66 countries made 119,004 anti-terror arrests, secured 35,117 convictions and reorganised to meet the new challenges posed by terrorism and insurgency.

Uprooting the dangerous ideology that breeds extremism is important to stamping out terrorism and freeing the North-East from the decade-old insurgency. Mass education programmes, provision of basic social amenities and poverty-eradication should be the priority of the federal and state governments.

New challenges demand fresh thinking; many countries have overhauled their security systems, changed the rules at airports and the aviation industry and invested heavily in technology to combat foes who combine fanaticism with social media and ICT skills.

President Muhammadu Buhari and his security chiefs should come to terms with the magnitude of Islamist terrorism, reform the intelligence and the police services and pursue the defeat of Boko Haram and elimination of its leaders with determination and renewed sense of urgency.