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After al-Baghdadi’s death, how the U.S. can prevent an ISIS resurgence

The Trump administration believes the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has major implications for the terror group. Nonetheless, the U.S. mission in Syria to counter ISIS will continue. Nick Schifrin talks to the Center for Global Policy’s Hassan Hassan and Mike Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about the impact of al-Baghdadi's death.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you heard from Vice President Pence, the Trump administration believes the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will have a measurable impact on ISIS.

    But the vice president also said that the U.S. mission in Syria will continue, despite President Trump's initial order to withdraw.

    Nick Schifrin is back to explore the implications of the death of one of the world's most wanted men.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What is the future of U.S. policy in Syria? And how will Baghdadi's death change ISIS?

    To discuss that, I'm joined by Hassan Hassan, the co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror" and a director at the Center for Global Policy, and Mike Leiter, who directed the National Counterterrorism Center for five years beginning at the end of the Bush administration. He is now a national security partner at the law firm Skadden, Arps.

    And welcome to you both. Welcome back to the "NewsHour," I should say.

    Hassan Hassan, let me start with you.

    You wrote today that al-Baghdadi's death might be more significant than Osama bin Laden's death. Why is that?

  • Hassan Hassan:

    I do think so, because, when — you know, by the time bin Laden in was killed in Abbottabad in 2011, he had already been far removed from the day-to-day reality of al-Qaida.

    He wasn't as relevant as Baghdadi when — before he was killed. Baghdadi was commanding an organization that was determined to return and revive its savage caliphate. And he was pretty much on the ground meeting his lieutenants. He was running the organization, and he was basically hands-on.

    So the impact of his killing could be far more — basically, more far-reaching than the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, which happened a decade after 9/11.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mike Leiter, Baghdadi not only ran ISIS inside Iraq and Syria, where we have been so focused, but ISIS became, of course, synonymous with global terrorism.

    Does the risk of global terrorism change at all now that Baghdadi is dead?

  • Michael Leiter:

    I think it may be in the short term.

    And I think Hassan makes an excellent point that Baghdadi, unlike Osama bin Laden in 2011, really is — was deeply tied to ISIS' operational planning. So there will be a little hiccup there.

    But, fundamentally, in my view, I don't think that the threat of violent Sunni extremists really changes at this point. The fact is that ISIS had already lost its physical caliphate, and it had become a global network of inspiration and loose coordination across many nations and into the West.

    And Baghdadi is — as important as he was, his death doesn't take away that basic inspiration, and the same basic playbook of small-scale attacks still, I think, poses roughly the same risk as it did before this raid.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Hassan Hassan, we have seen ISIS morph, as Mike Leiter was just saying, from a caliphate, from controlling territory back to an insurgency in Iraq and Syria.

  • Hassan Hassan:

    That's right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And further splintering perhaps all over the world.

    So, can Baghdadi's death mean that that momentum continues into an uncertainty, into kind of further splintering around the world, given that he was controlling things and kind of keeping things unified?

  • Hassan Hassan:

    Yes, that's the — really the big question.

    I'm torn about this, because, on one hand, Baghdadi, unlike any other leader that will follow him within ISIS, he built a legacy way before he announced the caliphate in 2014. He led the organization for nine years. He actually brought the organization up from the ashes, the defeat in 2008.

    He managed to actually bring it back from the dead, essentially. He expanded the organization from being an Iraqi organization into an Iraqi and a Syrian organization. That's why he called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

    And he turned it into a global organization before he announced — declared himself to be a caliph in 2014 and became this global organization.

    I think he had already managed to create this brand that will survive his death. But the timing of his killing is very sensitive. And that's why I would — I said that the United States has a window, has a small window, perhaps, to keep the pressure and keep the organization down and prevent it from becoming a large organization in the future, prevent it from basically reviving itself.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Mike Leiter, let's use that to turn toward U.S. policy in Syria.

    Of course, we have been focusing so much on President Trump's decision to withdraw over the last couple weeks. But we heard Secretary Esper today say specifically that the U.S. mission in Syria has not changed, it remains the same since 2014.

    A senior administration official talking to a few of us today said that the goals of the U.S. policy in Syria remain the same, number one, defeat ISIS.

    And so it seems that, despite the president's rhetoric over the last couple weeks, the strategy actually remains the same.

  • Michael Leiter:

    And very interesting from Vice President Pence's interview as well, taking a very similar line of, yes, removing U.S. troops from one section, but fundamentally the mission not changing.

    And I think that's quite good, because, as Hassan notes, there are — there's a strategic point at which we can now attack ISIS with Baghdadi gone. And there are tactical opportunities with the information that was garnered from the successful raid.

    So I hope that that is the case. This is exactly the time to accelerate operations against ISIS, so it can't recuperate quickly from this win against Baghdadi.

    I think the challenge we face, of course, is, some of our ability to now collect intelligence, to have a reliable partner on the ground in the Kurds is still diminished by the president's decision to withdraw from that area.

    And with that has also come the release of some previous ISIS detainees. So, at exactly the time where I think we should be most aggressive, we do face some very practical and challenging consequences from our withdraw of that region, and how it's affected the Kurds.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hassan Hassan, quickly, how — what would happen if the U.S. is not able to keep this pressure that you guys are both talking about on ISIS?

  • Hassan Hassan:

    I think ISIS would be reinvigorated again. ISIS will be galvanized by the sense of revenge, and they want to take the advantage of the fact that everyone is angry within the organization.

    And that runs the danger, the risk of ISIS quickly seizing on this vacuum in Syria and Iraq to emerge. Remember, Syria and Iraq is always — has always been — have always been and will always be the center of gravity for ISIS.

    So if you take the pressure off ISIS in those two countries, then ISIS will be back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Mike Leiter, you brought up the Kurds. And I want to ask you specifically about this in the time we have left.

    A senior administration official told me today that they played a — quote — "very important role." No one should underestimate their importance in Baghdadi's death.

    After Baghdadi's death, the U.S. and Kurdish fighters killed the spokesman of ISIS. Trump administration vowing to maintain the strategy. Is that enough to maintain what is clearly a vital relationship?

  • Michael Leiter:

    We have to invest in our intelligence community.

    And Department of Defense, I think, will continue to invest in that relationship. The Kurds have been with the United States for decades now. I think we have a practical need to work with them. But we also, in my view, have a true moral imperative to stand by those who have stood by us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mike Leiter, Hassan Hassan, thank you very much to you both.

  • Hassan Hassan:

    Always a pleasure.

  • Michael Leiter:

    Thank you.

  • Hassan Hassan:

    Thank you.

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