For years, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the world’s most-wanted terrorist. Last weekend, American elite soldiers managed to find and eliminate him in compound in northeastern Syria. How did he end up there?
One day, they would be coming to get him. He must have known that. After all, all the others who had helped transform Islamic State into a powerful organization and who had chosen him as their caliph — they were all dead. Incinerated and torn to shreds by rockets from American drones or shot to death by Syrian rebels. Only he was still alive despite five years of ceaseless pursuit: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (IS).
But they would surely find him at some point. Witnesses say he was growing more and more nervous when he would hear the sound of helicopters or planes. Perhaps he sensed that one day, that noise wouldn’t go away, that it would get closer and closer. And closer.
Baghdadi could hardly have known that the Americans were closing in on him this fall. For months, spy satellites and drones had been capturing images in the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, where the IS chief was hiding. They were able to draw ever tighter circles, until they ultimately zeroed in on a compound on the western edge of the village of Barisha.
The night of Saturday, Oct. 26, was cool, with the fall rains having started the week before. A while after midnight, the stillness of the olive orchards was shattered by the roaring of gigantic, twin-engine CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters and their accompanying Apache attack choppers. In total, eight helicopters were suddenly circling the nondescript house.
The explosions that followed a short time later destroyed one of the walls of the house, with the Delta Force troops wary of storming through the door due to the possibility of a booby trap. The helicopters opened fire when they were still some 50 meters (160 feet) in the air.
Taken By Surprise
Everything went according to plan. The Chinooks landed, the Special Forces soldiers jumped out and the translator who was brought along announced via megaphone in Arabic, tinged with either a Jordanian or Saudi Arabian accent, that all residents nearby should remain in their homes.
Four U.S. soldiers approached two large tents set up next to the walled compound and ordered the people inside to strip and come outside, promising that nothing would happen to them. This account comes from an eyewitness who described the scene to DER SPIEGEL later.
The people from the tent, taken completely by surprise, were handed florescent glowsticks so that they wouldn’t be mistaken for targets. They were then led away from the compound, according to the witness. Meanwhile, the attack began in earnest.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 48, was the most-wanted terrorist in the world in those early morning hours last Sunday. Since March, there has been nothing left of the empire that his IS soldiers conquered in 2014, an area roughly the size of Jordan and home to millions of subjects. Indeed, only rubble is left from the horrific regime once established by IS, one that tortured and beheaded people and enslaved entire ethnic groups.
The years in hiding had made Baghdadi extremely careful to the point of paranoia. Nobody carrying a mobile phone was allowed to come close to him, and he only communicated with the world outside via couriers, who would carry notes from him or verbal messages.
The imprisoned IS commander Ismail al-Ithawy described to the New York Times from his prison cell in 2018 how meetings with Baghdadi would go. First, he and other high-ranking members of the organization had to turn in all of their electronic devices, including watches. They would then be blindfolded and driven around in buses for several hours before they would eventually find themselves sitting across from Baghdadi. The visits were usually only 15 to 30 minutes long.
Baghdadi was constantly wondering: “Who is going to betray me,” says General Yahya Rasul, spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry. The terrorist leader, he said, trusted virtually nobody and he and his bodyguards constantly wore suicide vests so that there would be no chance of being taken alive by their enemies.
On the night of Oct. 26, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also wearing a suicide vest. U.S. Defense Minister Mark Esper would later report that soldiers called on the IS chief to come out of the house and surrender. “He refused.”
The fact that his pursuers were able to track him down in the Idlib province just a few kilometers from the Turkish border is likely to have come as a surprise to Baghdadi. Nobody, he likely felt, would expect him to be in Idlib.
The last Syrian province in the hands of the rebels is largely under the control of a jihadi group that is linked to Baghdadi by both ideological affinity and bitter hatred. Especially early on, in 2012, IS financed the Nusra Front because it was wary of operating under its true name, choosing instead to secure a foothold under the guise of an apparently local movement. But Nusra Front, made up primarily of Syrians, didn’t share Islamic State’s goals.
The men of Nusra Front pushed for the formation of an alliance with other rebel groups to fight against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But IS had different plans, secretly bound as it was with Assad’s military intelligence agency. The terror militia and the Assad regime temporarily cooperated in an effort to keep other rebel groups in check.
In April 2013, there was a falling out between IS and the Nusra Front, which went on to swear allegiance to al-Qaida for a time. The IS leadership had a number of Nusra Front commanders murdered, and even killed the official al-Qaida representative in Syria in 2014.
The groups, in other words, may have been spiritual allies, but they were bitter enemies on the field of battle. The Nusra Front, under its new name of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), went on to become the most powerful rebel group in Idlib and recently took up to a thousand IS followers prisoner after they had fled from other regions to Idlib. It seemed unlikely that anyone would expect Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be hiding in the region.
But there was at least one man who did: His host on that final night, Salam Haj Deeb. In his mid-40s, Deeb is originally from the old-town district of al-Shaar in Aleppo. In one video that has been circulating on the internet since last Sunday, a nom de guerre is used to refer to him, which initially made it difficult to identify him.
A House in Barisha
Deeb joined IS early on, a group which had such different ambitions than the other fanatical Islamist militias and which was so much more advanced when it came to planning, execution and discipline. But starting in early 2013, IS began infiltrating the rebel-controlled areas of northern Syria without identifying itself. And Deeb was part of that effort.
In early 2014, the otherwise uncoordinated, independently operating rebel groups suddenly joined forces for an attack on IS. They had come to the delayed realization that this murderous, highly organized group was focused on taking over their territory. But once they unified, the rebels proved stronger than IS and drove the group out of Idlib and Aleppo. Deeb had to flee.
He only reappeared three years later, in Barisha. He had plenty of money, but none of the men with whom DER SPIEGEL spoke know where it came from. He gave no indication of his political leanings or his IS affiliation, saying only that he was proficient when it came to sheep and olives.
He bought a piece of property just outside the village with an unfinished, two-story structure surrounded by olive trees. He paid $25,000 in cash. Later, he opened a store in the neighboring village of Sarmada, selling lentils and beans along with milk and cheese produced by his sheep.
He hired men from the village to finish the house, appointed with lavish marble. A wall was built around part of the property. It turned out to be rather large for him and the family of his son Mohammed, but nobody thought it particularly odd.
Everyone in Idlib ended up hosting relatives looking to escape the violence, or they got married despite the ongoing war, or they rented out rooms to those who had been displaced. Before long, there were so many newcomers in the village that the close community of yore was no longer quite as close. After all, it seemed a good place to find shelter from the war raging in other parts of the country: Nobody in Barisha can remember the hamlet ever having been bombed: It was too close to the Turkish border and too unimportant.
It was, in short, the perfect place to go into hiding.
Last Saturday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., a discrete guest arrived at the home of Salam Haj Deeb, as several witnesses would later tell DER SPIEGEL. They initially had no idea who he was, only that there were two women, a handful of men and children in his entourage as well. The most-wanted terrorist in the world had arrived, along with parts of his extensive family and his most trusted bodyguard.
At this point in time, Baghdadi likely had no idea that the countdown had long since begun. In just six to eight hours, he and almost all of those with him would be dead.
The U.S. had been trying to find the Islamic State leader for years. The Americans had managed to kill thousands of IS fighters from the air and had liberated the two large cities of Mosul and Raqqa, reducing them both to ruins. But they had been unable to discover the whereabouts of the top man on their wanted list, despite a $25 million bounty. It was the same amount set aside for al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri, but the search for Baghdadi was far more intensive.
Since May, the Americans had been pursuing a hot lead. The intelligence service of their Kurdish allies, the YPG, had managed to reconstruct Baghdadi’s escape route and for the first time, there were clues as to his whereabouts. According to that reconstruction, he had left the Iraqi province of Anbar, to which he had escaped in January, according to intelligence information, in anticipation of the fall of Baghus, the last bastion of the IS “caliphate” in Syria. It is widely presumed that he hid in the desert of Anbar with a handful of confidants, waiting somewhere in one of the villages in the region.
What’s Next for Islamic State?
But he didn’t stay long. Even in Anbar, the danger of discovery was high, with American and Iraqi drones flying overhead and the Shiite militias of Popular Mobilization Units operating on the ground. Before long, Baghdadi was once again on the Syrian side of the border. “Through our own sources, we managed to confirm that al-Baghdadi had moved from the al-Dashisha area in Deir ez-Zor” in eastern Syria “to Idlib,” Polat Can, a senior adviser to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, tweeted on Monday. “Since 15 May, we have been working together with the CIA to track al-Baghdadi and monitor him closely.”
Fleeing across the country to Idlib in the far northeastern corner of the country with at least two of his wives and several children, in addition to sending a number of his relatives in the same direction: For Baghdadi, it represented a massive departure from the extreme precautionary measures he had followed to that point.
And he was betrayed, perhaps even multiple times.
In Iraq, secret service agents managed to detain Muhammad Ali Saeed al-Zobaie, a brother-in-law of Baghdadi’s who acted as a courier for the IS leader. He led the agents to a tunnelled out hiding place near the Syrian-Iraqi border, where they found religious writings, a weapon and several first-aid kits. But they also found a small pouch containing hand-drawn maps and notes.
The Syrian Kurds would later proudly claim that they had installed an informant close to Baghdadi. And that they had found a pair of Baghdadi’s underwear in an abandoned hideout that would help the Americans confirm his DNA.
The wives of two of Baghdadi’s brothers were allegedly tracked down as they tried to flee, and a nephew of the top terrorist detained. An important trafficker also allegedly coughed up information.
But who exactly was responsible for what piece of information is difficult to determine, as is the precise role played by the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi secret service in the Baghdadi operation. Both sides have made competing claims to having provided the decisive piece of information.
What is certain, however, is that since summer, the Americans were closer to determining Baghdadi’s whereabouts than ever before. Already in September, it is thought that the IS leader had been found in Idlib. But then, U.S. President Donald Trump nearly wrecked the entire operation.
Ending in Failure
On Oct. 7, Trump took to Twitter to announce the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria. “The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!” he wrote. A chain reaction was the result, with Turkish troops marching into the region, the Kurds turning to Assad for help and the Russians taking over control of the airspace in northeastern Syria from the U.S. And it began looking as though the hunt for Baghdadi would end in failure.
But despite the chaos in northern Syria, the surveillance of the IS boss was not broken off. On Thursday, Oct. 24, the White House was informed by intelligence officials that there was “a high probability” that Baghdadi would be visiting a certain compound in Idlib. On Friday, the various military options were presented to Trump.
On Saturday morning, government representatives would later say, the U.S. was in possession of “actionable intelligence.” The operation was named “Kayla Mueller,” after the American human rights activist who was kidnapped by IS, raped by Baghdadi himself, according to testimony from other women prisoners, and then died under unclear circumstances.
As Donald Trump was in Camp David celebrating the 10th anniversary of his daughter Ivanka’s marriage to Jared Kushner on Friday night before flying to Virginia for a round of golf on Saturday, preparations for the attack on Baghdadi were well underway. Flyover rights were requested from and granted by Russia and the Turkish government was informed of the mission, though it remains unclear how much Ankara was actually told.
On Saturday at 4:18 p.m. local time, Trump returned to the White House and by 5 p.m., he was sitting in the Situation Room. A short time later, helicopters and escort jets took off, flying low to avoid radar. Initially, official U.S. accounts indicated that the attack was launched from Erbil in Iraq, but later accounts claimed it started from a base in Syria.
At America’s request, Turkish military officers and intelligence agents informed rebel groups under their control, including the HTS in Idlib, to refrain from shooting at the approaching aircraft. But that order apparently wasn’t received by an HTS post near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. The men there opened fire on the helicopters but missed their target — only to then be placed under arrest by their apoplectic commanders.
In the compound of Salam Haj Deeb, things then went quickly. It remains unclear whether Deeb survived the attack, but his daughter-in-law and at least one of his grandchildren died in the firefight. Baghdadi fled into the basement with two of his children.
Discovered by a German Shepherd
Trump would later say that the terror chief barricaded himself in a tunnel beneath the house, where he was discovered by a German shepherd. It was an IS calling card to dig tunnels under entire towns and villages stretching for hundreds of meters, complete with panelled rooms, electricity and lockable doors. But in Barisha, residents say they were unaware of any large-scale excavation, and Baghdadi remained under the house, indicating that it was just a simple basement.
At the apex of Islamic State’s power five years ago, Baghdadi pronounced himself “Caliph Ibrahim,” the leader of Islamic State. But now, his story came to an end in a basement in Idlib.
In 2014, he presented himself to the faithful of Mosul as a ruler chosen by God. And for a few weeks during that fateful summer, it looked as though he would find success in his ambition of establishing a terrorist state.
But long before IS lost its territory during several years of brutal warfare, Baghdadi was made to realize that the skies belonged to someone else: Namely, the U.S. Air Force, which began bombarding IS from the air in August 2014. Guerrilla fighters can survive such an onslaught, but a power that wishes to rule out in the open is an easy target and will ultimately succumb.
Once trapped in his tunnel, Baghdadi set off his suicide vest, killing himself and the two children he had dragged down into the basement with him. The American Special Forces were carrying a portable machine to assist in the quick identification of the victim, but after the detonation, they first had to dig through the rubble of the half-collapsed structure to find the remains of their target. That, at least, is the story later told by the American military.
It didn’t take long for the DNA test to reveal that the victim was indeed Baghdadi. And after two hours, the mission had come to an end. The helicopters took off again and six rockets were fired at the house, destroying it completely.
The next morning, a neighbor found seven dead bodies, women and children among them. Baghdadi’s remains were buried at sea, presumably dropped into the water from the air. A few hours later, Trump would claim that Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying” in his final moments, and that he “died like a dog.” American military leaders, however, have declined to confirm that account.
Not a Simple Situation
Now that Baghdadi has been killed, several questions must now be answered. Who is Baghdadi’s successor? The group announced his name on Thursday — Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi — but that name is not on a list compiled by Iraqi intelligence in March, which included the entire IS leadership right down to the provincial level. Western intelligence agencies likewise appear to be unfamiliar with the name.
More importantly, though: How dangerous is the Islamic State of today? What is the group, the most powerful terrorist organization in the world until recently, planning to do next? Security experts have warned on several occasions that IS could make a comeback.
But the situation isn’t that simple. The recent attacks and kidnappings carried out by IS seem threatening primarily because of horrific power the group possessed five years ago. Its puppet masters were almost all former officers from Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services and elite units. They were the true rulers over the caliphate and issued the most important orders — and they all died before Baghdadi.
On the one hand, it isn’t a bad time for those interested in taking advantage of a chaotic situation on the ground, just like IS did in Syria and Iraq. But the Islamist militia left behind so much scorched earth in the region that it is difficult to imagine a repeat of its rapid expansion. If IS does make a comeback, it would likely take place elsewhere. Afghanistan and Pakistan are both in danger, with hundreds of mid-ranking IS fighters having fled there, even founding one new IS province in the latter.
On Sunday morning, volunteers from the White Helmets, the Syrian search and rescue organization, showed up at the rubble on the outskirts of Barisha to recover possible human remains. But they were driven off by HTS fighters, who were there looking for vestiges of their archenemy. According to one fighter, the jihadis found $260,000 that was overlooked by the Americans the previous night.
Later, the HTS propagandists would present one of the group’s finds on the internet: a beige-colored vest of the exact same model as the one worn by Baghdadi in his last video from late April. It had surprisingly survived the American bombardment intact.