Josie Ensor Beirut
Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and hiding in Syria, despite Russian reports of his death, Iraqi and Kurdish counter-terrorism officials have said.
“Baghdadi is definitely not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99pc he is alive,” Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official said yesterday.
Mr Talabany claimed that the Isil leader was somewhere south of Raqqa, the capital of the jihadist group’s so-called caliphate.
“Don’t forget his roots go back to al-Qa’ida days in Iraq. He has years of experience in hiding and getting away from the security services,” he said. “He knows what he is doing.”
Russia had claimed that it killed the elusive leader in an air strike on a meeting of senior Isil commanders near Raqqa on May 28.
The Isil leader has not been seen in public since declaring its so-called caliphate from the Iraqi city of Mosul in July 2014.
The UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) last week said it had “unconfirmed information” that Baghdadi had been killed in Syria. However, Western and Iraqi officials could not confirm either of the claims.
“Our approach is we assume he’s alive until it’s proven otherwise, and right now I can’t prove otherwise,” Jim Mattis, US Defence Secretary, said last week, adding: “We’ll go after him until he’s gone.”
Abu Ali Basri, the director general of the Iraqi intelligence and counter-terrorism office in the ministry of interior, agreed that Baghdadi was still alive and in Syria.
He said: “We have more of a vested interest than others, than international and Arab intelligence services, to pursue and hunt down, to monitor all the movements of the leader of and his followers.
“The monitoring cells deny news of his death and other reports regarding his health which have recently been published.”
Baghdadi is not thought to have been in Raqqa, which has been heavily targeted by the US-led coalition, for some time and is believed to have been moving within Isil territory along the Syria-Iraq border.
One local in the village of Jdaidet al-Okaibat on the outskirts of the Isil-controlled eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor said that he appeared on June 24 for Eid al-Fitr prayers, which mark the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
He claimed that a group of around 200 people took part in the prayers, led by Baghdadi, who he said looked “fit and well”.
Officials have warned that despite Isil’s losses in its major strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, the threat from the group had not disappeared. “The group has sent sleeper cells from Syria to spread around the world to carry out attacks and spread chaos,” Mr Basri said.
Mr Talabany said Isil was shifting tactics despite low morale within the terror organisation and that it would take three or four years to eliminate the group entirely. He added that after defeat, the jihadists would wage an insurgency and resemble al-Qa’ida on “steroids”. (© Daily Telegraph London)