Early last week U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren claimed that the US led coalition against ISIS had killed a top ISIS commander, Omar al-Shishani. The red headed ethnic Chechnen (al-Shishani means “the Chechnen”) quickly made a name for himself in the organization for both his viciousness in combat, and tactical skills when it came to militant organization. According to The Toronto Star Shishani was, “one of the most prominent Daesh [ISIS] commanders, serving as the group’s military commander for the territory it controls in Syria. He may have also become the group’s overall military chief”.
The death of Shishani is major blow against ISIS as he is the highest ranking, and arguably most successful, military commander of ISIS killed so far. An article in The Independent points out that though the death of more recognizable members of ISIS, such as Mohammed Emwazi (also known as “Jihadi John”), “received the widespread publicity…the demise of another Abu Omar al-Shishani, will have a far more damaging impact on the fortunes of ISIS”. Shishani was not only an experienced military commander but was also an important asset in networking for the organization with fellow native Chechnens, Georgians, and other disenfranchised Muslims from the Caucasus regions. ISIS has lost a top leader, strategist, militant networker and committed fanatic all in one blow.
This is a huge success for all parties standing in opposition to ISIS, but it is of particular importance to US president Barack Obama, as he has less than a year left in office. However, Obama doesn’t seem like he’s ready to stop just yet – The Obama administration hopes to be able to capture or kill ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before Obama leaves office. This should be of no surprise, as this desire fits well in line with Obama’s overall foreign policy legacy.
In The Atlantic article “The Obama Doctrine”, which provides a general analysis of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg claims that, “killing the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is one of the top goals of the American national-security apparatus in Obama’s last year”.
Goldberg claims that Obama’s foreign policy positions can be seen as a reaction to the his predecessor’s administration: “Inside the West Wing, officials say that Obama, as a president who inherited a financial crisis and two active wars from his predecessor, is keen to leave ‘a clean barn’ to whoever succeeds him.” This is undoubtedly why many see Obama’s foreign policy as inconsistent or noncommittal – which it may be to some degree, but he would arguably say is for good reason. Obama wishes to have an active foreign policy without committing the US military to a prolonged and costly conflict that may quickly lose public support or potentially alienate members of the international community. According to Goldberg, “Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’”
How has Obama gone about achieving this active, yet cautious foreign policy? By using new technology and strategically targeting leadership of enemy militant groups. The Huffington Post notes that, “the claim that Obama has his sights set on Baghdadi comes as no surprise, as the president has shown he prizes hitting high-value targets — most clearly by focusing on killing Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, a goal he achieved on May 2, 2011. He now often speaks of that incident as a top foreign policy accomplishment”. Obama is more concerned with splintering these terrorist organizations than uprooting them wholesale – as the complete eradication of such organizations comes at a high cost and tends to engender disdain for the US military intervention abroad.
In retrospect, Obama has been fairly consistent in this approach of dismantling terrorist organizations. According to USA Today, besides authorizing the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan that led to the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin-Laden, the Obama administration has also taken out: Anwar al-Awklaki, the US born extremist and a top leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Samir Khan, founder of the pro-Al-Qaeda online magazine Inspire; Adam Gadhan, “senior operative” for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Mohammed Emwazi/“Jihadi John”, ISIS executioner and spokesperson.
With less than a year in office, it is likely that there is going to be a whole swath of high-ranking militants within organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda targeted. Obama’s approval ratings sky-rocketed by 11 per cent following the announcement of the raid that killed Bin Laden. Leaving office with having killed the purported “caliph” of the world’s newest and now most notorious terrorist organization would not only improve the image of his legacy as well as his party in the eyes of the public but it would also make him appear as the “strong” leader that Republicans and conservative detractors claim he is not.
As to whether or not this strategy is effective in destroying terrorist organizations, or at least blunting their capacity to conduct attacks, is a contentious issue. The Huffington Post questions the efficacy of this strategy: “In any case, it’s unclear how much killing Baghdadi would actually matter. Past rumors about his death haven’t significantly damaged the group, of which he is the self-proclaimed caliph. ISIS is a tightly structured organization that would likely be prepared to push others up the ranks, as al Qaeda did after Bin Laden’s death or the Taliban did after losing leader Mullah Omar”.
Either way, Obama is unlikely to change course now, and as perhaps the world’s foremost terrorist headhunter, he may be adding a new trophy to his collection in his last days.
Assistant External News Editor