One week ago, American special operations forces killed the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in northwestern Syria. The next morning, President Trump described the operation in vivid detail and the story was later amplified with accounts from the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor. While the Islamic State was a primary interest of mine in my past career, the intervening week has shown that other authors can better assess the long-term effect of this loss. What the following will do, however, is attempt to provide a useful framework for answering a popular question after episodes like this: “What does this mean?”
The Islamic State did not supernaturally emerge from the deserts of Iraq and Syria. It is a product of observable political issues, religious concepts, ecological and economic limitations, and a host of other concerns. At the same time, the Islamic State – like al-Qa‘ida – is not simply one man surrounded by loyal followers. As such, the loss of any one individual can shake an organization, but not break it. Ultimately, for groups like the Islamic State or al-Qa‘ida to truly wither, the fundamental conditions that made their existence possible must be addressed. This is a principle demonstrated consistently outside of modern counterterrorism.
Lance Armstrong was the finest bicyclist in the history of the sport. His story was sensational: a professional athlete who beat back a near-fatal cancer diagnosis and returned to the sport, won its preeminent title seven times, became an international celebrity, dated rock stars, entertained a run for Governor of Texas, and inspired millions to “Livestrong.” Much of his story was a fraud, however. Armstrong competed with the assistance of a complicated doping system that gave him superhuman capabilities. His team eventually turned on him and he surrendered his titles. His downfall did not end chemically-enhanced cheating in international sports, however. A country has made doping an element of its foreign policy, and new methods of avoiding screening are developed and regulatory organizations are constantly in a struggle to keep up with unscrupulous competitors. Lance Armstrong’s identification as a fraud has clearly not served as a decisive structural deterrent in international sports. Profit motives, the personal desire to win, political encouragement, and weak regulatory processes all contribute to the phenomenon of athletes cheating to win. Lance Armstrong’s personal challenges did little to effect the environment that made his original fraud a rational choice in the first place, so his removal from cycling is notable, but not decisive.
Two weeks ago, Mexico witnessed one of the bloodiest pitched battles of its long-running narco-insurgency. The battle, in Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa, took at least 14 lives and witnessed Mexican police effectively surrendering to cartel fighters. The engagement began after authorities arrested the son of Jaoquin “El Chapo” Guzman, but ended after the police freed their detainee in exchange for safe passage out of the city. Regrettably, this is just one episode of violence in an ongoing series of conflicts that have claimed tens of thousands of lives since 2006. Now, if the removal of cartel leadership was supposed to be politically significant, then the arrest, extradition, trial, and conviction of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in New York should have some limiting impact on the violence in Mexico. Acknowledging the violence in Mexico cannot, of course, be purely the fault of “El Chapo,” it is clear that this incident of leader removal has not fundamentally altered the calculus of participants in the Mexican narcotics trade. Americans remain wealthy and willing buyers for narcotics, the United States remains an excellent source of cash and weaponry, and the Mexican state is too weak to effect the overall status quo of the conflict on its own. While El Chapo’s conviction may be individually significant, it left the political and economic fundamentals of the conflict intact.
Bernie Madoff can swindle tens of millions from investors, well-connected attorneys can defraud the Federal Elections Commission, and celebrities and titans of industries can pay colleges and universities to provide favorable treatment to family members’ applications for admission. Federal law enforcement can investigate each instance, and the Department of Justice can be serious in sending violators to prison, but these law enforcement success stories – no matter how public – cannot on their own fundamentally dissuade other Americans from assessing fraud to be a viable path. Fraud pays too well, and jail time is far too unlikely, for a credible deterrent to exist. While certain individuals’ lives may be forever altered through the Department of Justice’s actions, it is unlikely that the fundamental incentive structure that made these individuals’ decisions viable in the first place has been broken apart.
The point here – if it was not sufficiently apparent – is not to equate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Lance Armstrong. The limitations of these analogies aside, it is clear that all of these characters thrived in political, ideological, economic, and ecological circumstances that made their activity possible and they all made choices to take advantage of these circumstances. Therefore, genocide in Syria and Iraq, narcoterrorism in the Americas, fraud in international sports, and unscrupulous economic or political activity in the United States cannot be expected to end when solitary actors are removed from these environments. Fundamentally changing the nature of the environments that gave rise to these actors is essential.
On May 2, 2011, special operations forces killed the leader of al-Qa‘ida, Usama bin Laden, in northwestern Pakistan. President Obama announced the successful operation – interrupting an episode of “The Celebrity Apprentice” on NBC – and his account was later matched by members of his cabinet, intelligence professionals, and the operators who flew into Pakistan. Unlike isolated arrests of white collar criminals, or deaths of violent terrorists, bin Laden’s death took place in the midst of a crisis for al-Qa‘ida. Al-Qa‘ida’s successful affiliate in Iraq had functionally detached itself, al-Qa‘ida’s ranks in Central and South Asia had withered under relentless American counterterrorism pressure, and – at that point – nearly the entire target audience for al-Qa‘ida’s political and religious posture had rejected the group’s message. Bin Laden’s death was another incremental step towards the group’s political irrelevance.
While al-Qa‘ida’s path to irrelevance was not completed in 2011 – and remains incomplete – bin Laden’s death was aggregated with other actions in a way that the Islamic State does not necessarily face at this time. Regrettably, the conditions that make the Islamic State a viable political alternative – political suppression for Sunni Muslims, the popularity of Salafi-Jihadi interpretations of Islam, Iran’s brutal enforcement of a favorable stability in the region – remain intact. Ultimately, the removal of an individual from a group that is taking advantage of political, ideological, economic, and ecological circumstances is not likely to defeat the group as a whole. Fundamentally changing the circumstances that enabled the group in the first place remains the best method for removing bad actors, whether they be dedicated to genocide, winning titles, selling heroin, or ensuring their child gains access to the Ivy League.