Updated on Sunday, October 27, 2019, at 9:32 am.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the hirsute rapist whom hundreds of thousands of Islamic State supporters considered their absolute leader, died yesterday during a U.S. military raid in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province, President Donald Trump announced on Sunday morning. Baghdadi became the head of ISIS in 2010 but was not seen in public until 2014, when the group designated him caliph and he addressed the world in a florid speech from the pulpit of the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq. Since then he has shown himself only once, on a dull video filmed in a windowless room and released in April.
As with Osama bin Laden, the most intriguing fact about Baghdadi’s assassination was its location, deep in what was considered enemy territory. The dominant force in Idlib is not ISIS—which is no longer dominant anywhere—but Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an affiliate of al-Qaeda. Recall that ISIS broke from al-Qaeda in 2013, and since al-Qaeda’s leaders rebuffed Baghdadi’s invitation to bow before him, the groups have traded nonstop insults and their members have tried to kill one another. Some of these insults do not strike me as the type that either side could easily take back: accusations of apostasy, disloyalty, cowardice, and idiocy. For Baghdadi to seek refuge among people who want to kill him probably means that the places where he had more support, such as within his home country of Iraq or near its border with Syria, could no longer provide him with any measure of safety. Finding him in HTS territory is like finding Derek Jeter hiding out in South Boston, or Martin Bormann living quietly by a synagogue on the Upper East Side.