The world’s most wanted man remains at large, but as his ‘caliphate’ has crumbled so has the discipline of his leadership
Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent
Day and night for the past three years, an unprecedented number of the world’s spies have zeroed in on a patch of Iraq and Syria to hunt for one man. Their target, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group, has eluded them all. But only just.
The most wanted man on the planet has been traced to a specific place at least three times in the past 18 months alone. And despite the protection of a devoted network, there have been other sightings of the reclusive leader, reported by Isis members shortly afterwards and confirmed later by intelligence officers. Being a fugitive in the digital age, or in a losing cause, clearly has its shortfalls.
One 45-second mistake on 3 November 2016 almost cost Baghdadi his “caliphate” before its collapse last year. As Iraqi and Kurdish forces advanced on Mosul, Baghdadi took up a handheld radio in a village between the west of the city and the town of Tal Afar. Spies based in a listening post further north were stunned as his distinctive voice exhorted followers to stand their ground.
“He spoke for 45 seconds and then his guards took the radio from him,” said a senior member of the Kurdistan Region Security Council who monitored the call. “They realised what he’d done.”
That rare moment of ill discipline allowed the network of spies chasing Baghdadi to trace him in real time. But then, as on at least two other occasions, there was no time to act. Baghdadi’s entourage knew his cover had probably been blown and whisked him away.
Late last year, he was also traced to a village south of Baaj, again through the brief and careless use of a communications device. The connection was picked up by a signals intelligence network that has penetrated web and phone use in Isis areas. However, it was too fleeting to deploy fighter jets circling above on permanent hunt for targets, and there was no confirmation of exactly where he was hiding.
The morsels of chatter have helped fill in a picture of Baghdadi’s movements – and temperament; the cast-iron discipline of his immediate circle has weak spots after all. His senior leaders, however, have had far more trouble with communications discipline, and slip-ups have often led to their demise.
According to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi expert and writer on Isis, Baghdadi is literally the last man standing among the group’s founding members.
“Out of 43 main leaders, Baghdadi is the only one left,” he said. “Out of 79 senior leaders there are only 10 left. The mid-level commanders (124) constantly change positions and posts due to deaths of other members. Every six months their roles change, they either get killed or replaced.”
‘Everything changed when he arrived’
Before being killed, some Isis leaders spoke on intercepted phones about having been in meetings with Baghdadi, or having known his movements. Their mistakes offered glimpses of his capacity and methods as leader. However, more has been gleaned about the terrorist tsar’s habits and leadership by people who have seen him regularly in parts of north-western Iraq and north-eastern Syria, and reported the encounters afterwards to regional and western spies.
From late 2014 until her capture in May the following year, Nisreen Assad Ibrahim Bahar had served tea to Baghdadi in the town of Omar in north-eastern Syria, whenever he came to visit her husband, the Isis oil “minister” Abu Sayyaf.
“All I did is put the tea behind the door,” she told the Guardian. “But I knew he was there. He used to come often.” Bahar, otherwise known as Umm Sayyaf, said she was not allowed to see Baghdadi but was in no doubt when he was around.
“He used to visit my husband and talk business. Everything changed when he arrived.”
Abu Sayyaf was killed in a raid by US commandos, who took Bahar to Erbil, where she has been held ever since. She denies being a senior member of Isis, but her contact with the group’s leader has helped paint a picture of him.
A more comprehensive psychological profile of Baghdadi and his movement patterns had been drafted by US and British spies by mid-2015. Two years later, his area of travel had shrunk, as had the Isis “caliphate”.
Intelligence agencies in Iraq and Europe believe that for most of the past 18 months, Baghdadi has been based in a village south of Baaj, and has travelled in a small range between Abu Kamal, on the Iraq-Syria border, and Shirkat, south of Mosul.
Three intelligence agencies have confirmed that Baghdadi was seriously wounded in an airstrike near Shirkat in early 2015. Separate sources have confirmed to the Guardian that he spent several months recovering in Baaj. Even now, his movements remain limited by his injuries.
According to witnesses who saw him in Abu Kamal after the end of the Muslim festival of Ramadan, he was looking tired and drawn, a shadow of the confident, black-robed figure who ascended a pulpit in Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri in mid-2014 to proclaim the “caliphate’s establishment”.
Hashimi said: “Isis has resorted to being a shadow government. They still control small parts of Anbar and Euphrates river but they are sleeper cells. There is no leadership structure, it has dissolved. They do not hold meetings any more – and if they do it is never in the same place twice. They don’t even pass oral messages to each other any more. They use Signal and Telegram [encrypted apps] to communicate.
“They’ve cut back the men by 50%. The main budget cannot be touched any more. Leadership no longer matters.
“I’ve met with [foreign fighter] Abu Hamza al-Belgiki, who feels betrayed, as do all of them. They had been instructed to fight for Mosul till their deaths. When the battles intensified in the city the senior leaders and those close to Baghdadi all fled, leaving these fighters behind. They feel fooled. They have been fooled.”
Throughout the rise and fall of Isis, a debate has continued in intelligence circles about whether Baghdadi being dead or alive would make a difference to the group, and if the organisation still poses a threat to regional order and global security. A senior regional intelligence figure and a counterpart in Europe both say the threat level from the organisation has barely changed, and that Baghdadi’s survival could be used by his followers as a rallying call.
Officials say the branch responsible for planning attacks abroad has been left relatively unscathed by the losses of fighters and land.
“They are a complex administration filled with ex-intelligence officials,” Hashimi said. “They deal with recruiting, arming and transporting fighters and collect the financial contributions and alms. Out of 35 branches, 33 are run by two Iraqi men: Abdullah Youssef al-Khatouri, nicknamed Abu Bakr, and Abu Tiba Ghanem al-Jboori. We believe one is in Turkey and the other is in Scandinavia.”
Shiraz Maher, the deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, at King’s College London, said Isis was trying to convince its followers that military defeat had changed little, particularly in its capacity for planning attacks abroad.
“In the next 24 months there will be concerted attempts to attack the west,” Maher said. “The narrative of vengeance is important.
“What we are seeing in the support community is a fatalistic resignation about what has happened. “In their narrative, they say the US could only defeat the “caliphate” by attacking it from the air but didn’t have the guts to fight on the ground. Had that been the case, they say, they would have won.
“Isis says it will return, and in the meantime it’s asking people to carry out attacks in its name. They’re also repositioning themselves politically, for example, with Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, claiming to be the rightful guardians of that cause. This is the mutation of an idea, not the end of it.”
And as Isis regroups, so does Baghdadi. A US military assessment is that he is probably hiding in the Euphrates river valley, along the border with Syria. However, regional officials say he has returned to a tract of land between the Tharthar basin and the desert, nearer to where it all began for the now diminished leader and his downsized terror group.
“He’s on his last legs,” a regional official said. “We will get him this year. Finally.”
Additional reporting by Nadia al-Faour