October 27, 2019 2:28PM

Concerning the Killing of Abu Bakr al‐​Baghdadi and U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

Upon hearing the news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al‐​Baghdadi had been killed, I issued the following statement:

Even President Donald Trump’s harshest critics should welcome the news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al‐​Baghdadi was killed in a raid in northwestern Syria Saturday evening. The operation, President Trump noted in his statement, reflects the bravery and professionalism of the men and women in the U.S. military, as well as U.S. intelligence agencies. President Trump also credited Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and the Syrian Kurds for varying levels of support.

With the passage of time, Baghdadi’s demise may be seen as a belated footnote to ISIS’s spectacular rise and fall. He had been reported wounded before, and appears to have spent most of the last few years of his life in hiding or on the run. That no doubt complicated his ability to plan and execute other terrorist attacks, or recruit new members. Although further details are sure to emerge, the operation that ended Baghdadi’s life (he reportedly committed suicide as the U.S. forces closed in on him) resembles the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that captured the 9/11 plotters Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. Importantly, none of these operations depended upon tens of thousands of troops stationed indefinitely in distant lands. There’s a lesson here for those who claim that such open‐​ended nation‐​building missions are necessary to prevent or disrupt so‐​called terrorist safe havens.

It is now clear that unrelenting pressure — not merely by U.S. forces, but also by the many other groups and nation‐​states that ISIS had terrorized – has severely weakened the organization. Indeed, there is reason to believe that some of the tens of billions of dollars Americans spend every year to combat terrorism might be better directed elsewhere. I hold out some hope that today’s welcome news contributes to a reevaluation of all U.S. counterterrorism policies, and that, someday, we will achieve a better balance that preserves American security in a manner consistent with our essential rights and liberties.


For that to occur, Americans must keep the terrorist threat in perspective.

Admittedly, this is not easy to do. Cato foreign and defense policy scholars have been writing about terrorism and counterterrorism policy ever since 9/11. And yet, despite our best efforts, too many Americans continue to terrorize themselves.

But, as I explain with my co‐​authors John Glaser and Trevor Thrall in our new book, Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (and How We Can Recover):

the terrorist threat cannot serve as a guiding principle for foreign policy. Not only is the eradication of terrorism impossible in a practical sense, but over time terrorist threats have proven less significant than many believed immediately after the attacks of 9/11.…[T]he United States should address the threat of terrorism by continuing to improve its homeland security measures, maintaining vigilance on the intelligence front, and using diplomacy and other tools to discourage conflict and the use of violence as an instrument of politics wherever possible.