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What Remains of the Islamic State?

After ISIS leader Baghdadi’s death, the terrorist group still poses a threat in Syria and Iraq.

By , an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
An aerial view on Oct. 27 shows the site that was hit by helicopter gunfire which reportedly killed nine people in Idlib province along Syria's border with Turkey.
An aerial view on Oct. 27 shows the site that was hit by helicopter gunfire which reportedly killed nine people in Idlib province along Syria's border with Turkey. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: What comes next for the Islamic State after its leader’s death, the European Union grants a Brexit extension which could mean a December election in Britain, and what to watch in the world this week.

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Baghdadi Is Dead, But a Weakened ISIS Remains

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: What comes next for the Islamic State after its leader’s death, the European Union grants a Brexit extension which could mean a December election in Britain, and what to watch in the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Baghdadi Is Dead, But a Weakened ISIS Remains

U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had died in a raid by U.S. special operations forces in northern Syria—detonating a suicide vest during the pursuit. It’s a major success for the president—and his national security team—as he faces a mounting impeachment inquiry. “Last night the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Trump said.

Plans for the raid were underway well before the United States began withdrawing troops from the region, and the New York Times reports that the sudden decision to pull out of Syria earlier this month complicated the Pentagon’s ability to carry out the operation. Finding the ISIS leader was a top priority for Trump, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces spent five months working to gather intelligence on his location before the Turkish incursion began this month.

[In this 2016 series for Foreign Policy, an Islamic State insider details how Baghdadi’s scheming paved the way for the group’s expansion into Syria, throwing off the yoke of al Qaeda along the way.]

What remains of ISIS? Even without Baghdadi, the Islamic State still poses a threat in Syria and Iraq, particularly after the Turkish offensive reconfigured the situation in the country’s northeast—and led hundreds of former Islamic State fighters to escape Kurdish-run prisons. Another raid—conducted with the SDF—reportedly targeted Baghdadi’s second-in-command, but that operation has not officially been confirmed, FP’s Lara Seligman reports.

New leadership. While Baghdadi’s death isn’t likely to have an immediate effect on operations on the ground, it does mark a “turning point” for the Islamic State, the Washington Post reports. The decentralized group will have to select its next leader nearly a year after its territorial defeat and as it struggles for influence on the ground in Iraq and Syria. While some have escaped, thousands of former fighters remain in prison.

What We’re Following Today

EU grants Brexit extension. The European Union has agreed to grant the British government a Brexit extension until Jan. 31. That means that a no-deal Brexit by Oct. 31 is likely off the table. There would be an option for Britain to leave the European Union before Jan. 31 if a Brexit deal is ratified. It appears that European Council President Donald Tusk was able to convince France—which had objected to a three-month extension—to back it. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still pushing lawmakers to support a snap election on Dec. 12, which would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, making passage unlikely if the Labour Party opposes the motion or abstains.

If he loses, there are indications that Johnson and the Tories might support a new bill proposed by two smaller opposition parties—the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats—which would call for an election on Dec. 9. Even the reliably pro-Tory Telegraph (Johnson’s former employer) touted the Dec. 9 proposal as a lifeline and a route to an election.

Macri loses in Argentina. Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández won Argentina’s presidential election on Sunday without a runoff, ousting incumbent President Mauricio Macri with approximately 48 percent of the vote. Fernández, with running mate and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, won the August primary election in a landslide. Argentina’s crisis-prone economy was the main issue for voters, with mounting foreign debt, inflation, and unemployment. Fernández would inherit the economic crisis—including negotiations with creditors to restructure Argentina’s debt. The Central Bank has already tightened currency controls, limiting dollar purchases to $200 per month in order to maintain the country’s foreign reserves.

Iraqi protesters return to the streets. Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied in Baghdad on Sunday despite a violent crackdown by security forces against demonstrators over the weekend, with at least 74 people killed. The protests, which resumed on Friday, are the second wave of this month against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, with Iraqis blaming corruption among the political elite for the country’s poor public services and struggling economy. This time the government has largely met the protesters with silence.

The World This Week

Chinese Communist Party leaders begin a secretive four-day meeting today, which comes at a crucial time. China’s economy is slowing down amid the trade war with the United States, and Beijing is facing Western criticism over its handling of four months of unrest in Hong Kong. Both issues will be discussed, insiders tell Reuters.

A key witness is scheduled to testify in the U.S. House impeachment inquiry today, but it’s not clear if he will show up. On Friday, the White House invoked “constitutional immunity” in an attempt to stop former Deputy National Security Advisor Charles Kupperman from cooperating; Kupperman filed a federal lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment on whether he should obey the legislative branch’s subpoena or the executive branch’s directive. The outcome could set a precedent for testimony, including from ex-National Security Advisor John Bolton.

The CEO of Boeing sits before the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, the anniversary of the deadly crash in Indonesia involving the company’s 737 Max jet—the first of two deadly accidents. Boeing remains under fire, and CEO Dennis Muilenberg’s appearance will mark the first time an executive has spoken before Congress about the crashes. Muilenberg was removed from his position as chairman of the board earlier this month.

The U.S. Federal Reserve is likely to cut interest rates again on Wednesday for the third time since July, as it weighs whether the recent moves are enough to stave off an economic slowdown. One key U.S. economic indicator will be released Friday: the government’s October job growth report, which could be affected by a recent car manufacturing strike.

Keep an Eye On

Britain’s ongoing investigation. British investigators are working to identify the 39 people found dead in a truck container last week, victims of a suspected trafficking operation. Few carried identification, and police in Vietnam have collected DNA samples from families who have come forward—with 35 of those who died thought to be from a single province, Nghe An.

Bolivia’s election audit. Bolivia’s government says it could strike a deal with the Organization of American States this week to audit the Oct. 20 national election, which President Evo Morales won outright—but not without allegations of irregularities. The opposition candidate, Carlos Mesa, has called a general strike today in protest of the results.

The next prime minister of Belgium. Local papers reported over the weekend that Sophie Wilmes will replace Prime Minister Charles Michel, becoming the country’s first female leader. Wilmes is currently the budget minister, and she would lead the government until political parties are able to form a new one.

Essay Contest—Foreign Policy has partnered with the Carnegie Corporation to launch an essay contest. Do you know how U.S. engagement with Russia should change in order to best improve global security? We want to hear from you. Applications close Nov. 1. Learn more:

Odds and Ends

A Ph.D. candidate in Peru is the first person to write and defend an academic thesis in Quechua, the language spoken by 8 million people living in the Andes region. The student, Roxana Quispe Collantes, grew up speaking the language and her thesis focused on Quechua poetry. Scholars at the National University of San Marcos said it was the only one in its 468-year history.

A painting found in the kitchen of an elderly French woman has sold for 24 million euros ($26.5 million) at auction—the most expensive medieval painting ever sold. The artwork had been hanging for decades above the woman’s stove; she and her family thought it was an unremarkable icon from Russia. An auctioneer who came to value furniture noticed the painting as the house was being cleared. It turned out to be Christ Mocked, by the 13th century Florentine painter Cimabue.

That’s it for today.

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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