The United States has been at war with radical Islamic terror since shortly after September 11, 2001. Radical Islamic terror is a difficult threat to assess because it involves an international terrorist network, but the U.S. has enjoyed two important victories in the deaths of international terrorist leaders. U.S. troops killed Osama bin Laden on President Barack Obama’s watch and they killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on President Donald Trump’s watch.
Obama and Trump were at rather similar places in their presidency for these seminal events in the war on terror. Each was running for re-election after his party had lost the House of Representatives in the previous election (2010 and 2018). Yet Obama chose to politicize the victory and to de-emphasize the continuing terror threat, while Trump has so far continued to fight radical Islamic terror, knowing the threat is not likely to die with one charismatic leader.
On May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. This was a very significant victory. After all, bin Laden was the international force behind al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the attacks on September 11, 2001. Obama was right to celebrate and it does speak well of him that U.S. troops accomplished this victory on his watch.
However, Obama effectively declared “Mission Accomplished,” running for reelection in 2012 as the man who defeated al-Qaeda. True to his campaign promise, the president withdrew troops from Iraq, keeping President George W. Bush’s timetable for a withdrawal by December 31, 2011. Troops surged in Afghanistan, but the Obama narrative that Islam was not connected to radical Islamic terror may have blinded the president to the ongoing threat.
To his credit, Obama admitted that “al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must — and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.” However, he played up bin Laden as “al Qaeda’s leader and symbol” and downplayed the ideological role of Islamist jihadism behind the terrorist network.
Obama said that “the United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.” Yet he went further, adding, “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.”
America is not at war with Islam, but the kind of terrorism that President George Bush declared war against is inspired by Islam, and its leaders are inspired by a vicious form of Islam. Even while there are many Muslim American patriots — like M. Zuhdi Jasser — and pro-freedom Muslims who steadfastly oppose this terrorism and the ideology behind it, there are a great many Muslims who believe in imposing Sharia (Islamic law) by force through terrorism. Osama bin Laden was inescapably Muslim.
President Obama seems to have underestimated the religious threat of radical Islamic terror because he underestimated the religious element of it. Perhaps for this reason, he was taken aback by the terrorist attack in Benghazi in 2012 and the rise of the Islamic State.
On September 11-12, 2012, radical Islamic terrorists attacked the American diplomatic compound and the CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. Islamists with the group Ansar al-Sharia killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Rather than admitting that this was a terrorist attack, the Obama administration presented the false narrative that it was a spontaneous protest triggered by an internet video — “The Innocence of Muslims.”
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Obama Administration aides repeatedly blamed an amateur video in public remarks, refusing to call the attack an act of terrorism. While Clinton made public statements linking the attack to the video, she emailed her daughter Chelsea blaming an “al Qaeda-like group” for the attack. In a call with Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, Clinton said, “We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack — not a protest.”
The amateur video did trigger protests in Egypt and elsewhere, but the timeline of Clinton’s statements suggests that she and other Obama officials crafted a narrative blaming the video for the attack in order to downplay the threat of terrorism and bolster Obama’s re-election chances in November 2012.
Obama did win re-election, but by a smaller margin than his original victory in 2008.
Meanwhile, the U.S. defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and America’s subsequent withdrawal from Iraq left a vacuum of power — and a ripe situation for a new terrorist group to emerge. Iraq is a divided country, with Shia Muslims outnumbering Sunnis by nearly 2-1. Under Hussein, Sunni Muslims controlled the government. When the U.S. tried to introduce democracy, the Sunnis formerly loyal to Hussein were left without a job, and they were very angry.
These Sunnis banded together and joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, which joined with Syrian allies to become the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While Obama was pulling out of Iraq, ISIS was growing and forming a government based on their strict interpretation of Sharia and spreading by force and terror. ISIS shocked the world’s conscience, and countries across the region united in opposition to the terrorist group. Yet ISIS grew because it represented a strong rejection of both the West and the Middle-Eastern status quo. It seized territory, eventually becoming larger than the State of Colorado at its height in October 2014.
ISIS also expanded on al Qaeda’s international terrorist network, claiming responsibility for horrific attacks across the world.
In January 2014, Obama had dismissed ISIS as a “jayvee team.” He would continue to insist that ISIS is not Islamic.
President Donald Trump has responded to a rather similar situation in markedly different ways.
On October 27, 2019, President Donald Trump announced the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. This came as the 2020 presidential election was starting to heat up. Rather than adopting a similar “Mission Accomplished” strategy, Trump has kept his sights firmly on the next threat. He seems more dedicated to actually defeating ISIS than to milking the death of a terrorist leader for re-election.
As PJ Media’s Matt Margolis pointed out, Trump congratulated U.S. troops more than he congratulated himself, while Obama arguably did the opposite. Yet Trump made headlines for his insistence that Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” when the American strike team killed him. “He died like a dog. He died like a coward,” the president insisted.
Many outlets have reported that Trump’s advisers were taken aback by these remarks, since the president could not hear the audio in the footage of the Baghdadi strike. But the president seems to have intuitively grasped the kind of masculine appeal of ISIS, and so he struck directly at that appeal, calling Baghdadi an evil monster — but also a coward.
Trump may have belittled Baghdadi, but he did not underestimate the continued threat of ISIS. While Trump had claimed that the U.S. “quickly defeated 100 percent of the ISIS Caliphate,” he would not let the issue rest with the death of Baghdadi.
The president announced Baghdadi’s death on Sunday, October 27. Two days later, he announced another death.
“Just confirmed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s number one replacement has been terminated by American troops. Most likely would have taken the top spot – Now he is also Dead!” Trump tweeted.
The president was referring to ISIS spokesperson Abu Hasan al-Muhajir, who was killed by U.S. forces in Aleppo province on Monday, October 28.
That Friday, Trump tweeted, “ISIS has a new leader. We know exactly who he is!”
ISIS has a new leader. We know exactly who he is!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 1, 2019
Trump is not resting on his laurels. While he may capitalize on Baghdadi’s death for his re-election, the president’s strategy already seems entirely different from Obama’s response to bin Laden’s death and the Benghazi attacks.
This is not to say that Trump’s approach to the Middle East is perfect. While he treats Israel far better than Obama did, Trump has made questionable decisions when it comes to Syria, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
But when it comes to celebrating the death of an international terrorist leader, Trump seems far more interested in actually fighting terrorism — and in preventing the next copycat from taking the terrorist’s place — than in milking one high-profile victory.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.