Homeland Security

'We Don't Need to Go Directly After' ISIS Leader al-Baghdadi, Says U.S. Commander

U.S. Marines deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve pose with Iraqi service members in Iraq on Nov. 27, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Capt. Christian Lopez)

ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. commander of a joint coalition force assisting the Iraqi security forces as they root out remnants of ISIS declared Tuesday that it “doesn’t really matter” where self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is because “he’s not having an effect out here.”

Speaking to Pentagon reporters via video link from Al Asad Airbase in Iraq, Col. Seth Folsom, commander of Task Force Lion, said he doesn’t believe reports that ISIS tapped former Iraqi regime leaders to command their forces in the country. “I believe that, really, what the leaders of ISIS, the few key leaders that are actually left, I believe what they are is — I believe they’re twisted,” he said. “Twisted by some kind of ideology that very few of us can understand.”

“But the simple fact is, it’s what they did here, over the course of the last three and four years, has been an absolute tragedy. And the upside to all of it is that the United States, with the — literally — the world writ large, was able to see ISIS for what it was, which is a fraud and pure evil,” the colonel added. “And the fact that 75 different organizations here, including 71 different countries, could come together as a coalition with the sole purpose of helping Iraq fight ISIS, I think that says something about good versus evil in this world.”

Folsom characterized the “so-called hardened ISIS fighters” as “running like cowards” in the face of Iraqi offensives, “and their leader, al-Baghdadi, he was nowhere to be seen — so, so much for loyalty to that.”

“And I’ll also tell you this. With — you know, as far as al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and his henchmen, you know, his senior commanders to facilitate what’s going on, I look at it out here like a game of chess, all right?” he said. “And so if al-Baghdadi is the king of his so-called caliphate, and, you know, then we don’t need to go directly after him. All we need to do is systematically pick off his knights, and his rooks and bishops. His mid-level and senior commanders, until none of them are left to protect him. And then eventually we’ll bring him to justice.”

Iraqi officials acknowledged last month that ISIS sleeper cells could “case some unrest.” Earlier this month, officials in Nineveh province warned that ISIS holdouts were still hiding out in hard-to-access tunnel networks in the western regions of Mosul.

ISIS’ “one goal” in Iraq right now, Folsom said, is “merely to survive.”

“You know, their organization has been fractured. They are, essentially, leaderless out here. And they are doing anything they can to just hold on with the hopes that, I don’t know, maybe we’ll forget about them,” he said. “…When I think about ISIS as it is now, these small pockets of fighters who are having problems communicating with each other and building a coherent strategy, I can say with confidence that their days are numbered.”

Asked how many ISIS fighters remain in Iraq, the colonel replied, “That’s a good question and if I knew I would probably be celebrating right now in the Al Asad dining facility with an alcohol-free beer.”

“But I’ll tell you that the small pockets — these remnants that we focus on, they’re easily addressed. And so, as we work together with our Iraqi partners, one of the greatest enabling capabilities that we have is providing and sharing intelligence with them,” Folsom said. “So, each time we’re able to uncover what we think is a remnant of ISIS — whether they’re storing things in caves or operating somewhere out in the desert — we pass that information freely to our Iraqi partners and they then go take care of it. And that has been one of the most important impressive things out here is the energy with which the Iraqi army takes what we give them, processes it, plans and then goes after the bad guys.”