Some believe bin Laden is the real victor of the war on terrorism, since he succeeded at provoking the U.S. into endless war in unfamiliar terrain. But the rise of ISIS showed bin Laden lost control of the movement he started. Bin Laden did not believe the time was right for a caliphate. Baghdadi took advantage of both the Syrian civil war and Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq to make the caliphate a brutal fascist reality, complete with misogynist enslavement and opportunities for men to find meaning through sanctified violence. When al Qaeda and the elder generation of jihadist theorists opposed ISIS, Baghdadi’s organization—now an actual state, complete with an army, and a flag—had no problem attacking them. Baghdadi was less visible than bin Laden, rebuking the leadership style of a previous generation and signaling that the caliphate was more important than he was. The caliphate was ISIS’ triumph over bin Laden, whose children ate his revolution.
This history matters because it shows that the expansive war the U.S. launched does not fight against a static enemy. It generates enemies—the slain al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki is another example—and provides opportunities for new ones to arise. Baghdadi himself experienced four years of captivity in the U.S. detention facility at Camp Bucca in Iraq before his 2009 release. Trump on Sunday recalled the horror of seeing American detainees dressed in orange jumpsuits without recalling that ISIS chose the orange jumpsuits to evoke the ones worn by detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
No one should think the fall of the caliphate, let alone Baghdadi’s death, means that U.S.’ jihadist adversaries have achieved their final form.