The Pentagon describes Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a “person of great interest to us,” which in Pentagon-speak means they’d really like to lob some missiles at him.
That’s unsurprising, because firing missiles at people is kind of their thing. But coming up with a pretext for a drone assassination against Baghdadi when he is not fighting against the US, and the US isn’t officially in the new Iraq war yet, isn’t easy.
The problem is two-fold, as not only is ISIS not fighting the US anywhere right now, but it is fighting two Shi’ite nations, Iraq and Syria, and assassinating their leader could spark a backlash against the US from Sunni nations that see the US taking sides in the sectarian wars.
US drone overflights are on the rise in Iraq, up to 50 flights a day according to officials, though so far there have been no strikes. Baghdadi has made some very high-profile public appearances in Mosul in recent days.
The argument right now is that ISIS might conceivably be a threat to the US Embassy in Baghdad, if the city falls to them. That’s kind of a flimsy argument, and if anything attempted killings could bring the US more directly into the war, and make them a much more appealing target for ISIS than they already were. Still, with the Obama Administration escalating the US role in Iraq at any rate, the question of direct involvement may soon be academic.