What Will Trump Administration Do If U.S. Catches ISIS Leader Baghdadi?

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reportedly on the move after coalition forces set siege to Mosul, raising the question what the U.S. should do if it ever catches him.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

An Iraq-based news report is that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Ibrahim al-Badri, is no longer camped in the besieged Mosul and is somewhere along the Syrian border “between al Hajinn in Syria and al Ba’aaj in Iraq.”

By any measure, the manhunt is underway, and it is useful to weigh what is to be done with al-Badri, an Iraqi national outlaw, who is also the head of a mass-murdering gang of what the Trump Administration declares to be “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Speaking recently with Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, I learned there is room to entertain the possibility that al-Badri, if located, may well fall into the hands of the US and its allies in the region, such as the Kurdish forces known as the YPG.

“Do we want al-Badri alive?” I asked.

“Unlike the Obama administration, we’re not going to second guess the theater commanders,” Gorka explained. “We’re not going to have the eight thousand mile screwdriver that literally was the last eight years. We will leave those decisions to how you effectively neutralize an HVT, a high value target, to the people who are there on the front line.”

Gorka then posited out loud about al-Badri in captivity, using the analogy of the nine-year pursuit and US-sanctioned killing of the surrounded Al Qaeda chieftain Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

“If I had my druthers, I’ve always said, in the last 16 years, it would have been superlative to have had Osama Bin Laden in an orange jumpsuit in the dock in a federal court. Not just from the treasure trove of intelligence that could have been gleaned from him from interrogations, but simply the psychological warfare aspect. The great leader of the global jihad is standing in a dock shackled to his waist by a chain. So that’s just my druthers.”

I agree with this measure and have corresponded with several of my colleagues, such as the Johns Hopkins historian Michael Vlahos, about the historical models for how an empire can manage a condemned outlaw and his followers.

The Spartacus rebellion in the Gladiator War was answered by Rome with the spectacular ruthlessness of crucifying six thousand of the defeated slave army long the Appian Way. Spartacus himself was never found. Two thousand years later, this theater of cruelty has continued on through the 20th and 21st centuries; from the Armenian massacre nearly a century ago to ISIS today. Therefore it is a method without any credibility for a coalition that includes the U.S.

There have been other methods for dealing with an outlaw. The sadistic public execution of William Wallace was typical of the Medieval and Renaissance answer to a warlord rebellion. Even the Sun King, Louis XIV, creator of the pinnacle of divine right civilization at Versailles, vouchsafed torture and burning of outlaws such as witches and poisoners. However, after the political scandal of waterboarding for the Bush administration, it is not imaginable that al-Badri or his lieutenants will be tortured in custody.

American history offers grim examples of how our Constitutional authority has handled those regarded as the leaders of threats to civil order, such as the Boston Corbett shooting of the surrounded and defeated John Wilkes Booth, or such as the killing of the tricked and cornered Oglala chief Crazy Horse.

For America and its modern allies, the Nuremberg trials, 1945-1949, offer a likely model for what to do if al-Badri is captured along with thousands of his followers.

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However the notion of Nuremberg as a complete answer to mass-murder can be misleading. I learned from Andrew Nagorski, in conversation about his book, “The Nazi Hunters,” that the Allies were overwhelmed both by the scale of the crimes and the numbers of the murderers.

“To kill millions, you need millions,” Nagorski explained. “Or at least hundreds of thousands. And as a result of this, the Allies wanted to make an example of some of the top people, and some of the people who ran the concentration camps, but there was no way to try everybody, and then very quickly the Cold War sets in.”

What this meant was that, in the fresh aftermath of the war, 1945-46, the worst of the worst, such as Martin Borman or Joachim von Ribbentrop, were condemned and executed by hanging (not in public); and yet tens of thousands of Hitlerites who participated actively in the industrial slaughter escaped justice. Unavailable or deceased witnesses, incomplete investigations, exhausted resources, bald chance, geopolitical crises such as the Cold War beginning 1948, made thorough retribution impractical.

It is easy to presume that, in the event of the capture of al-Badri and his leadership, and the vanquishing of the ISIS multitudes, tens of thousands of scattered killers and their accomplices will change their stripes in order to blend into the ongoing turmoil of the unstable Middle East and troubled Europe. Only sturdy, peaceful Arab states and a confident, modern Islamic culture can confront, rehabilitate or solve the killers who get away.

Yes, the chained al-Badri in an orange jumpsuit inside a bulletproof glass booth on global television, if it comes, will provide a political advantage to the US and its allies for a few seasons.

However, the homicidal fury that drives the cutthroats will continue until the modernists of Islam are victorious jot and tittle.