MS Risk Blog

IS Leader on the Run

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Officials and experts are reporting that the leader of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is on the brink of losing the two main centres of his ‘caliphate,’ adding that while he is on the run, it may take years to capture or kill him.

IS fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group’s territory – Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, with officials stating that Baghdadi is steering clear of both and is likely hiding in thousands of square miles of desert between the two capitals. In Iraq, the country’s forces have retaken much of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city, which the terror group seized in June 2014 and from which Baghdadi declared himself shortly afterwards “caliph,” or leader of all Muslims. Meanwhile Raqqa, his capital in Syria, is nearly surrounded by a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab groups. The last public footage released of Baghdad shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

According to Lahur Talabny, the head of counter-terrorism at the Kurdistan Regional Government, “in the end, he will either be killed or captured, he will not be able to remain under ground forever,” noting however that “…this is a few years away.” Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle Eastern governments on IS affairs, has disclosed that one of Baghdadi’s main concerns will be to ensure that those around him do not betray him for the US $25 million reward that has been offered by the United States to bring him “to justice.” Hashimi further states that “with no land to rule openly, he can no longer claim the title caliph,” adding “he is a man on the run and the number of his supporters is shrinking as they lose territory.”

Who is Baghdadi?

Baghdadi, born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013, just two years after the capture and killing of the group’s leader Osama bin Laden. Baghdadi grew up in a religious family. He studied Islamic Theology in Baghdad and joined the Salaafi jihadist insurgency in 2003 – the year of the US-led invasion in Iraq. He was caught by the Americans who released him about a year later after considering him to be a civilian rather than a military target. Hashimi has disclosed that Baghdadi is shy, adding that recently he has stuck to the sparsely populated Iraq-Syria border area, where drones and strangers are more easier to spot.

The United States Department of State’s Counter-Terrorism Rewards Programme had placed the same US $25 million bounty on Bin Laden and Iraqi former president Saddam Hussein. The rewards are still available for Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. While neither Saddam nor Bin Laden were voluntarily betrayed, the bounties did complicate their movements and communications. According to Fadhel Abu Ragheef, a Baghdad-based expert on extremist groups,” the reward creates worry and tension, it restricts his movements and limit the number of his guards,’ adding “he doesn’t stay more than 72 hours in any one place.” Luhur Talabany further notes that Baghdadi “has become nervous and very careful in his movements,” adding that “his circle of trust has become even smaller.” His last recorded speech was issued in early November 2016, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle. During that speech, he urged his followers to fight the “unbelievers” and “make their blood flow as rivers.” US and Iraqi officials currently believe that Baghdadi has left operational commanders behind, with diehard followers to fight the battles in Mosul and Raqqa as he now focuses on his own survival. His current whereabouts however have been impossible to confirm. The last official report regarding his whereabouts was from the Iraqi military on 13 February 2017. The report disclosed that Iraqi F-16s carried out a strike on a house where he was thought to be meeting other commanders. The house is located in western Iraq, near the border with Syria.

Baghdadi does not use phones and has a handful number of approved couriers in order to communicate with his two main aides – Iyad al-Obiadi, his defense minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, who is in charge of security. On 1 April, Iraq state TV reported that Jumaili had been killed, however there has been no confirmation of this report. Hashimi notes that Baghdadi moves in ordinary cars, or the kind of pick-up trucks used by farmers between hideouts that are located on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, adding that he has just a driver and two bodyguards with him during the move. This region is well known to his fighters as the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency against US forces that invaded Iraq and later the Shi’ite-led governments that took over the country.

While it may take years to capture or kill Baghdadi, it is evident that he has had an influence in the region, and his legacy and that of IS is likely to ensure unless radical extremism as a whole is tackled.