From ‘caliph’ to fugitive: Islamic State leader Baghdadi’s new life on the run

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES)

From ‘caliph’ to fugitive: Islamic State leader Baghdadi’s new life on the run

One of Baghdadi’s main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the $25 million reward offered by the United States to bring him ‘to justice’.

WORLD Updated: Jun 12, 2017 22:05 IST

Islamic State
A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the centre of Iraq’s second city, Mosul.(Reuters File)

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is on the brink of losing the two main centres of his ‘caliphate’ but even though he is on the run, it may take years to capture or kill him, officials and experts said.

Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group’s territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and officials say Baghdadi is steering clear of both, hiding in thousands of square miles of desert between the two.

“In the end, he will either be killed or captured, he will not be able to remain underground forever,” said Lahur Talabany, the head of counter-terrorism at the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. “But this is a few years away still,” he told Reuters.

One of Baghdadi’s main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the $25 million reward offered by the United States to bring him “to justice”, said Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle East governments on Islamic State affairs.

“With no land to rule openly, he can no longer claim the title caliph,” Hashimi said. “He is a man on the run and the number of his supporters is shrinking as they lose territory.”

Iraqi forces have retaken much of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city the hardline group seized in June 2014 and from which Baghdadi declared himself “caliph” or leader of all Muslims shortly afterwards. Raqqa, his capital in Syria, is nearly surrounded by a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab groups.

Damaged cars are seen stacked in the middle of a road in western Mosul’s Zanjili neighbourhood on June 9, 2017, during ongoing battles to try to take the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. (AFP Photo)

The last public video footage of him shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group’s leader Osama bin Laden.

He grew up in a religious family, studied Islamic Theology in Baghdad and joined the Salaafi jihadist insurgency in 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq. He was caught by the Americans who released him about a year later as they considered him then as a civilian rather than a military target.

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Bounty

He is shy and reserved, Hashimi said, and has recently stuck to the sparsely populated Iraq-Syria border where drones and strangers are easy to spot.

The US Department of State’s Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program had put the same $25 million bounty on Bin Laden and Iraqi former president Saddam Hussein and the reward is still available for Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Neither Saddam nor Bin Laden were voluntarily betrayed, but the bounties complicated their movements and communications.

“The reward creates worry and tension, it restricts his movements and limit the number of his guards,” said Fadhel Abu Ragheef, a Baghdad-based expert on extremist groups. “He doesn’t stay more than 72 hours in any one place.”

Baghdadi “has become nervous and very careful in his movements”, said Talabany, whose services are directly involved in countering Islamic State plots. “His circle of trust has become even smaller.”

His last recorded speech was issued in early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he urged his followers to fight the “unbelievers” and “make their blood flow as rivers”.

US and Iraqi officials believe he has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, to focus on his own survival.

It is not possible to confirm his whereabouts.

Baghdadi does not use phones and has a handful number of approved couriers to communicate with his two main aides, Iyad al-Obaidi, his defence minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, in charge of security. There was no confirmation of an April 1 Iraqi state TV report that Jumaili had been killed.

Baghdadi moves in ordinary cars, or the kind of pick-up trucks used by farmers, between hideouts on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, with just a driver and two bodyguards, said Hashimi.

The region is well known to his men as the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces that invaded Iraq and later the Shia-led governments that took over the country.

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At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

It persecuted non-Sunnis and even Sunnis who did not agree with its extreme version of Islamic law, with public executions and whippings for violating strict controls on appearance, behaviour and movement.

But the group has been retreating since in the face of a multitude of local, regional and international forces, driven into action by the scores of deadly attacks around the world that it has claimed or inspired.

A few hundred thousand people now live in the areas under the group’s control, in and around Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, in Syria’s east, and in a few pockets south and west of Mosul. Hashimi said Islamic State was moving some fighters out of Raqqa before it was encircled to regroup in Deir al-Zor.

Displaced Iraqi children gather behind a fence at the Hasan Sham camp for internally displaced people on June 10, 2017. (AFP Photo)

Mosul, with pre-war population of 2 million, was at least four times the size of any other the group has held. Up to 200,000 people are still trapped in the Old City, Islamic State’s besieged enclave in Mosul, lacking supplies and being used as human shields to obstruct the progress of Iraqi forces by a US-led international coalition.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, made of Kurdish and Arab groups supported by the US-led coalition, began to attack Raqqa last week, after a months-long campaign to cut it off.

The militants are also fighting Russian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels backed by Turkey.

The last official report about Baghdadi was from the Iraqi military on Feb. 13. Iraqi F-16s carried out a strike on a house where he was thought to be meeting other commanders, in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, it said.

Overall, Islamic State has 8,000 fighters left, of which 2,000 are foreigners from other Arab states, Europe, Russia and central Asia, said Abu Ragheef.

“A small number compared to the tens of thousands arrayed against them in both countries, but a force to be reckoned with, made up of die-hards with nothing to lose, hiding in the middle of civilians and making extensive use of booby traps, mines and explosives,” he said.

The US government has a joint task force to track down Baghdadi which includes special operations forces, the CIA and other US intelligence agencies as well as spy satellites of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

It will take more than that to erase his influence, Talabany said. “He is still considered the leader of ISIL and many continue to fight for him; that hasn’t changed drastically,” he said, using one of Islamic State’s acronyms.

Even if killed or captured, he added, “his legacy and that of ISIL will endure unless radical extremism is tackled.”

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WHAT IS LEFT OF MOSUL IRAQ FOR CITIZENS TO COME BACK TO, TO TRY TO REBUILD?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

WHAT IS LEFT OF MOSUL IRAQ FOR CITIZENS TO COME BACK TO, TO TRY TO REBUILD?

Sufian stood in the gateway of the bullet-pocked villa, sheltering from the rain. Around him were other men and teenage boys waiting to be cleared by Iraqi intelligence officers who were on the lookout for ISIS sympathizers and suspects.

Sufian was in his late teens, perhaps early twenties. When I shook his hand, it was warm and soft. The skin under his scruffy, juvenile beard had the same pallor of many people fleeing Mosul, who had spent weeks huddled indoors, often in dark basements, as the battle raged outside.
I greeted him in Arabic. He responded in English.
“Hello, how are you?” he said, smiling nervously, eying the intelligence officers nearby.
“You speak English?” I asked.
“I am capable of expressing myself adequately,” he said.
Attack helicopters clattered overhead, occasionally firing missiles and heavy machine guns into the old city. Gunfire, mortar and artillery fire boomed a few blocks away.
We were trying to convince the Iraqi soldiers to let us go forward, so I left Sufian and went back to the group of intelligence officers nearby.
Our producer, Kareem Khadder, was trying to charm them. They were a tough crowd, suspicious by profession. Kareem handed out another round of cigarettes, making jokes in the hopes they would warm to us.
I knew this would take a while, so I walked down the muddy road with camerawoman Mary Rogers to have a look around Tayaran, the battered neighborhood just north of Mosul’s equally battered airport.

Smoke rises over west Mosul's old city. Iraqi forces are fighting street-by-street, house-by-house. The Iraqi government doesn't publish casualty figures but the CNN crew saw many ambulances rushing toward the battle zone.

I turned around and saw Sufian again, struggling to push his mother in a wheelchair through the muck.
“A real disaster,” Sufian told me, breathless. “We lost everything: our hearts, our beliefs, our belongings. We don’t belong here any more. We want peace.”
“Will you come back?” I asked.
“No, I can’t,” he said. “No more. I can’t. I’m so scared. They will kill us.”
I stopped to let them go, saying in Arabic “khair, in sha Allah,” which roughly translates as “God willing, all will be well.”
“We have Jesus,” responded Sufian. “We are going to Jesus.”
“What did Sufian say?” interjected his grandfather in Arabic, hobbling on a cane over to me.
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t fathom why someone with the very Sunni Muslim name of Sufian would say that.
Is this what he meant when he had said we lost our beliefs?

People fleeing west Mosul.

In the meantime, Kareem’s charm bore fruit. The intelligence officers were laughing, asking us to pose for group pictures. They were ready to take us deeper into the city. This would be our second try that day.
Earlier, we had driven with members of the Rapid Response Unit of the Iraqi Federal Police to a park next to the Mosul museum. But as we were driving up, our car shook with a massive blast. The shock wave rattled the shutters on the shops lining the road.
When we exited our car, we saw a cloud of black smoke rising about 150 meters (492 feet) away.
One by one, ambulances were going forward. The soldiers were on edge. A pickup truck rushed by in the opposite direction, several wounded soldiers in the back.
We later learned an armored ISIS suicide earthmover had exploded, killing and wounding many of the soldiers.

With the little they could carry west Mosul residents are streaming out of the city. "It's a catastrophe," one young man told the CNN crew.

Our escort, a man named Captain Firas, decided we had seen enough. He barked for us and the other journalists to get back in our cars. Protests fell on deaf ears.
We drove back to the ruins of Mosul airport, losing Captain Firas along the way.
There we saw hundreds of Mosul residents walking out of the city. Leading the group was Saleh Jassim, a man in his early thirties, a white calf draped over his shoulders, other cows following him.

Saleh Jassim, seen above, braved ISIS snipers and mortar fire to get his family and his herd, his only livelihood, out of harms way in western Mosul.

While others appeared exhausted and disoriented, Saleh was smiling broadly, waving, giving a V-for-victory sign with his fingers.
“Thank God for your safety,” I told him in Arabic. In response, he kissed my cheeks.
Saleh and his family had walked for two hours from their home in the Bab Al-Baidh district of Mosul’s old city.
“The shelling was violent,” he told me. “I haven’t slept in two days.”
The cows, he added, belonged to a neighbor.

Families fleeing the fighting in western mosul carrying the few belongings and their herds as it is their only livelihood. Many residents of Mosul flee the violence under mortar and sniper fire.

While Mary and I were talking to Saleh, Kareem had stopped a Federal Police pick up truck and convinced the men inside to take us back into the city. That’s where we met Sufian.
If this story is starting to sound disjointed, that’s how our days in Mosul usually are. Plan A quickly becomes Plan B, then Plan C, until we get half-way through the alphabet.
After speaking with Sufian and his family, we followed our new-found friends, the intelligence officers, deeper into the city by car where they promised to take us to their commander. He wasn’t there. As we waited, seven soldiers came down the street. There were pulling two men with their shirts pulled over their faces.
“They’re da’eshis,” a soldier next to us said. ISIS.
“How do you know they’re ISIS suspects?” I asked one of the intelligence officers.
“They’re not suspects. They are ISIS,” he shot back.
“How do you know?”
“We have informers,” he said.
“I hope you let them have it,” shouted a soldier by the side of the road.
As the group ran past, I saw red marks, and two black boot marks on one of the captive’s exposed back. They had already “let them have it.” Or to be more precise, had started to let them have it.

Rasoul, a year and a month old, hid out with his family and other relatives -- 23 people in all -- for 12 days in their basement, while the battle raged around them in the Jawsaq neighborhood of west Mosul. As they were in the basement, the house caught on fire after being hit by mortar rounds, says his grandmother, Khadija.

The commander we had come to meet never showed up. Instead, we followed another group of federal policemen into a half-finished building where they said we could see Al-Hadba, the leaning minaret of Mosul next to the Great Mosque of al-Nuri.
It was there that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi made his first and only confirmed public appearance on July 4, 2014, days after the announcement of the establishment of his so-called caliphate.
From the third floor of the building, we had a panoramic view of the old city.
“Be careful,” a policeman warned us. “There are snipers.”
Al-Hadba was just about two kilometers, just over a mile away. To its left, a large column of black smoke rose to the heavens. More gunfire, more blasts.
On the broad boulevard below, a family of eight — two boys, four men and two women — scurried by. One of the women, in a green headscarf, clutched a stick with a piece of white cloth to signal they were not combatants.
“Come,” offered one of the soldiers, “I’ll show you a dead da’eshi.”
We followed him down the stairs, though a courtyard, over an earth rampart to the side of a street.
“We have to run across this street, one by one,” he said. “There’s a sniper.”
Once we gathered on the other side of the street, we heard the whoosh of an incoming mortar round.
Everyone hit the dirt.
It landed with a crash somewhere nearby.
“Quickly, we need to go,” said the soldier. “There might be another mortar.”
Before us was a charred, mangled Federal Police Humvee. Next to it, the burned, twisted wreckage of a car. Probably a car bomb. To its right lay a corpse in combat fatigues and boots, leg splayed. By the stench, it had been there for days.
A black rooster strutted by the body, crowing triumphantly.
All around, there is destruction.
Masonry, glass shards, twisted metal, scraps of clothing, and bullet casings litter the ground.
Machine gun fire rattles down the street.
Another boom.
This is what is left of the great city of Mosul.