On Sunday, President Donald J. Trump announced that U.S. special forces had conducted an operation to kill the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
As American boots closed in, al-Baghdadi retreated into a dead-end tunnel, taking three children with him, where he detonated a suicide vest. As Trump said, “He died like a dog, he died like a coward.”
The death of al-Baghdadi signals that the inspiration and figurehead of the long-sought-after global Islamic caliphate is gone. The radical ideology that motivated thousands of foreigners to leave their homes and join the fight in Iraq and Syria now appears to be a dead-end journey that would not be worth the cost of a one-way plane ticket to Ankara.
What was unique about the Islamic State that makes al-Baghdadi’s death so important was its ability to perpetuate the “clash of civilizations” narrative in a way that coincided with military success on the ground. At its peak, the expansion of ISIS into northern Syria and Iraq saw approximately 10 million people living under its control.
After the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul, al-Baghdadi gave a speech at the thousand-year-old Great Mosque of al-Nuri, in which he declared himself the head of a newly resurrected Islamic caliphate.
As The Atlantic writer Graeme Wood explained in a famous 2015 article titled “What ISIS Really Wants,” the vision of Islamic State is an apocalyptic one with a final battle to take place against “the armies of Rome” in northern Syria.
Their propaganda frequently idealized the conquer of Rome for its historical and symbolic importance as the epicenter of Western civilization. This fanatical desire to strike the West was infamously borne out when in 2015 130 people were killed and approximately 500 injured in coordinated attacks by an ISIS terror cell in Paris.
In 2016, ISIS operatives killed 32 people when they detonated suicide vests in an airport and metro station in Brussels. Lone-wolf attacks at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and San Bernadino, California, would cost 63 Americans their lives.
The Islamic State, through its material support and ideological propaganda, showed that it had the ability to take the lives of innocents, even if it was an ocean away.
The campaign to eliminate the ISIS caliphate, Operation Inherent Resolve, began in late 2014. By March 2019, the territorial claims of ISIS were nonexistent thanks in large part to American airpower and Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria.
This is not to say that ISIS does not remain a threat. There are an estimated 18,000 fighters lurking in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, assassinating community leaders and kidnapping those who assisted in the fight to keep the caliphate off their doorstep.
The fight against the Islamic State is very much in keeping with our national character. Ever since America’s emergence as a global superpower, the U.S. has stepped up on multiple occasions to save the world from brutal fanatics and evil ideologies. World War II saw American GIs storm the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation.
It was American boots that hiked the mountains of Korea and walked the rice paddies of Vietnam in an effort to combat and contain the spread of communism. In 1991, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, American forces led an international coalition to drive the Iraqi tyrant’s forces out of the country.
Seven years later, U.S. warplanes and destroyers intervened to stop Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević from continuing an ethnic cleansing of Albanians during the messy Kosovo War.
American power abroad has always been complemented by our willingness to welcome and assimilate victims of conflict. After World War II, 650,000 displaced Europeans were resettled with the help of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Even more significantly the “Marshall Plan,” an economic aid package worth $12 billion (the equivalent of $100 billion in today’s money), successfully aided in re-building the war-ravaged countries of western Europe.
Throughout the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees found a home along the Eastern seaboard after escaping the communist regime of Fidel Castro. At the conclusion of American involvement in Vietnam, more than a million “boat people” fleeing the regime in Hanoi were ushered into the U.S. under the banner of asylum.
But our contemporary elites would rather have us believe that America’s past sins, both at home and abroad, are irredeemable, defining features of who we are as a nation. Instead of trying to learn from our history, we engage in a ritualistic self-flagellation that ends with statues torn down, buildings re-named and national heroes scorned.
Rather than appreciate the sacrifices of our forefathers that have yielded unprecedented freedom and prosperity, we yearn for an egalitarian society brought on by wealth redistribution and “free” government programs.
Our national generosity has welcomed millions fleeing violence and our values drove the fight to free the world from the tyranny of Nazism and communism. Since 9/11, no other nation in the world has done more to battle Islamic extremism than the United States.
In the long-running War on Terror, the death of al-Baghdadi and the destruction of the ISIS caliphate remind us that America continues to remain an effective force for good in the world.
Matthew Mai is a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in public policy. His column, "Beneath the surface" runs on alternate Thursdays.
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