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‘Let’s Kill This Baby in the Crib’

That’s what the CIA said when it had Osama bin Laden in its sights after 9/11. Instead, America veered off into Iraq, and the result is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who appeared in a new video this week.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
A screen grab from a propaganda video released April 29 purportedly shows Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the first time in five years at an undisclosed location.
A screen grab from a propaganda video released April 29 purportedly shows Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the first time in five years at an undisclosed location. Salampix/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images

Around the time that the man who was to become known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq more than 15 years ago—in early 2004—I was close by, embedded with the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army under Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, in Baghdadi’s birthplace, the Sunni Triangle town of Samarra.

The Iraqi insurgency was raging, though still in its early stages. Like most U.S. commanders at the time, Odierno understood little about counterinsurgency or winning hearts and minds, so he authorized his units to sweep up everybody who looked suspicious. In practice, that meant any Iraqi male under 65 or so, and the Americans, given free rein to be as aggressive as they pleased by Donald Rumsfeld, the blinkered U.S. defense secretary, were fairly guileless about their tactics. “I usually just round up all the military-age men,” Ben Tomlinson, the lieutenant in command of the platoon I was with, told me flatly during one middle-of-the-night raid into town.

At one point the soldiers I was traveling with, the 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry Division, burst into a small hostel in the town center whose guests had been identified by U.S. intelligence as Iranian-influenced insurgent sympathizers. Never mind that the Iraqi insurgency was mostly Sunni and the Iranians were Shiite. The troops didn’t know the difference. Finding no “bad guys” there, they moved on to a nearby house that U.S. intelligence had said was occupied by the Iraqi hostel owner, arresting him and his three sons. It was just after 3 a.m. One roughly awakened youth pleaded that he was a medical student, and the soldiers riffled through what were clearly English-language textbooks surrounding his bed. Even so he was shoved to the floor and restrained with plastic handcuffs. Another young man, by appearance the youngest, was hyperventilating and coughing incessantly, obviously feverish. An American boot was applied to his back and down he went too. The women, presumably their mother and sister, stood by silent and terrified. On the ride back to base, I sat next to another detainee in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Blood was oozing from his nose, which appeared to be broken, but he could not wipe it away because his hands were flexi-cuffed behind his back. He was whimpering.

Many detainees like this fellow ended up at Abu Ghraib prison or other detention centers such as Camp Bucca. Most were later simply released—and of those a good number went back out into U.S.-occupied Iraq filled with anger and hatred for their occupiers. As I witnessed with my own eyes, the unspoken rule for U.S. forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion was that all Iraqis were guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings, and sometimes killings were arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis had zero recourse to justice. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Then multiply it thousands of times, direct it at America, and you have not only an insurgency but a rebirth of radical Islamism in a region that, until the Americans bumbled into an unnecessary and fraudulently justified war, wasn’t terribly radicalized.

Among the anonymous thousands released then was Baghdadi, who at the time was a junior cleric known as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry. Though he was apparently a committed radical Salafist even then, he had no real movement to preside over. But as a 2015 Brookings Institution report on Camp Bucca put it: If detainees “weren’t jihadists when they arrived, many of them were by the time they left. Radical jihadist manifestos circulated freely under the eyes of the watchful but clueless Americans.” Indeed he may have been arrested only because he was visiting a friend who was on the Americans’ wanted list. He was let go from Camp Bucca after 10 months, but Baghdadi departed with “a virtual Rolodex for reconnecting with his co-conspirators and protégés: they had written one another’s phone numbers in the elastic of their underwear,” the Brookings report said.

Now the leader of the Islamic State, Baghdadi is still out there, issuing hateful videos as he did this week—his first in five years. Although the Islamic State lost its territory in Iraq and Syria—its last holdout, the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, was captured last month by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces—Baghdadi declared the group was entering a new phase. “In fact, the battle of Islam and its people against the Crusaders and their followers is a long battle,” he said in the video.

Washington apparently agrees that it’s involved in a protracted struggle.  In a speech on Tuesday, Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, acknowledged that the Islamic State is not defeated, seeming to contradict President Donald Trump’s previous statements that ISIS has been “100 percent” vanquished.  Instead, the group is “just entering a new phase” as a “global threat,” having mostly taken over that role from al Qaeda, Sales said.

(In a statement issued after the initial publication of this report, the State Department denied that Sales had contradicted Trump, saying Sales agreed that the liberation of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria was a great victory. It further said the ambassador did not consider Islam a threat, only Baghdadi’s “hateful” distortion of  “a faith that prioritizes compassion and mercy and pluralism and respect for difference.”)

Sales said Islamic State’s ideology was clearly spreading from Afghanistan to Africa to South and East Asia—including Sri Lanka. Sales said the U.S. government was investigating a new report that one of the terrorists involved in the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka “may have trained with Islamic State in Syria.” In an audio that may have been recorded after his video, Baghdadi appeared to confirm that, saying: “And as for our brothers in Sri Lanka, I was overjoyed when I heard about the suicide attack, which overthrew the cradles of the Crusaders and avenged them for our brethren in Baghouz.”

The “Crusaders.” Sound familiar? This was, of course, a typical trope in Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric in the years leading up to 9/11 and afterward, during his decade on the lam. And through his misjudgments, President George W. Bush turned what had started as an absurd bin Laden-generated myth—that the Americans were invaders like the Christian Crusaders of old—into an in-your-face reality that vindicated bin Laden’s rhetoric, made him a hero, and nearly two decades later still deranges U.S. foreign policy and animates al Qaeda 2.0, the Islamic State. Odierno’s bungling dragnet approach to Iraq—which the military writer Thomas Ricks later criticized fiercely in his 2006 book, Fiasco, for helping to generate the Sunni insurgency—was, writ small, the Bush administration’s overall approach to terrorism.

“You can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam [Hussein] when you talk about the war on terror,” Bush declared in September 2002, as he made the case for the Iraq invasion. That disastrously erroneous judgment explained a lot of what went wrong later. Mere months after 9/11, according to some U.S. intelligence officials, America already had within its grasp the means to end to what has since become, by far, the country’s longest war. This was several years before Baghdadi or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the original leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had been radicalized into militants, or there was any such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq, which would later morph into today’s Islamic State under Baghdadi’s ministrations. 

Instead, back in December 2001, there were only bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who found themselves and their followers stuck in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan following the devastating two-month U.S. air campaign—aided by Northern Alliance and other Afghan allies on the ground—to oust the Taliban. Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation at Tora Bora, later told me in an interview (and he repeated this in his 2005 book, Jawbreaker) that he was certain he had bin Laden trapped there, based on monitored radio transmissions. Berntsen said he drafted a message to Washington that ended with this line: “Let’s kill this baby in the crib.”

Berntsen wanted to send in fewer than 1,000 Army Rangers to tighten the noose on the fleeing al Qaeda terrorists. He believed that had the United States done so “the war could have been over pretty quickly,” as he told me in a 2016 interview. But Bush, Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney turned him down, arguing nonsensically that the Pakistanis (who almost undoubtedly helped bin Laden hide for years) would capture him. Instead, rather than send troops into Afghanistan to wipe out al Qaeda, the Bush administration began to massively shift men and resources to Iraq, where al Qaeda didn’t yet exist.

And here we are, hundreds of thousands of lives and limbs later. Bin Laden, though dead, lives on as a legend and model, and already it seems Baghdadi is adopting his tactics of inspiring followers from remote hidden locations, albeit with somewhat more sophistication in the social media age.

It is only the latest reminder of the strategic catastrophe that was the Bush administration. But Trump may now be making many of the same mistakes. Also on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration was planning to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization—following a decision to do the same thing with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This is exactly the sort of mindless conflation of threats that got the Bush administration into trouble. Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the IRGC has anything to do with the Islamic State. (Indeed, many radical Islamists like Baghdadi have long rejected the Brotherhood as too peaceful.)

Which takes us back to those tragic-comic U.S. raids I witnessed in Baghdadi’s birthplace, Samarra. The benighted (at least initially) U.S. response to counterinsurgency in Iraq—relatively few Iraqi insurgents then were actually radicalized Muslims like Baghdadi; instead most were merely Sunnis, many of them cast-offs from Saddam’s disbanded army, who were fearful of the Shiites’ growing political power—was, again writ small, a failure to understand radical Islamism as a whole. Bush used al Qaeda after 9/11 to trump up the threat from Iraq, and he later also conflated Hezbollah and Hamas with al Qaeda as terrorists of the same ilk, just as Trump seems to be doing now. Actually, these groups have never had much in common with one another—or at least they didn’t until America decided to make itself their common enemy.

Thanks in large part to American mistakes, it has come to be known as the Forever War, and there is no end in sight.


This report was updated on May 1 to account for a State Department comment.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh