News analysis

As ISIS crumbles, where is its caliph Baghdadi?

BAGHDAD • The world's most wanted man, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saw his so-called caliphate crumble and its last shred of territory in Syria evaporate yesterday.

After declaring himself caliph in 2014, Baghdadi held sway over seven million people across swathes of Syria and Iraq, where ISIS implemented its brutal version of Islamic law. But that land has been whittled down to disjointed sleeper cells by years of fighting.

Reclusive even when ISIS was at the peak of its power, the 47-year-old Iraqi - who suffers from diabetes - has been rumoured to have been wounded or killed several times in the past. And his whereabouts have never been confirmed.

So, with his proto-state gone and a US$25 million (S$33.8 million) United States bounty on his head, where is Baghdadi?

Mr Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi specialist on ISIS, said: "He has only three companions: his older brother Jumaa, his driver and bodyguard Abdullatif al-Jubury, whom he has known since childhood, and his courier Saud al-Kurdi."

Mr Hashemi said the quartet is likely lying low somewhere in Syria's vast Badia desert, which stretches from the eastern border with Iraq to the sweeping province of Homs. That is where his son Hudhayfa al-Badri was reportedly killed in July by three Russian guided missiles, he added.

Nicknamed "The Ghost", Baghdadi has not appeared in public since he delivered a sermon at Mosul's famed Al-Nuri mosque in 2014, declaring himself "caliph". His last voice recording to his supporters was released in August, eight months after Iraq announced it had defeated ISIS and as US-backed forces closed in next door in Syria.

But as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces pressed the "final battle" against ISIS' last sliver of territory, a spokesman for the US-backed group said the elusive leader was likely not there.

 

But some of those who fled the east Syrian hamlet of Baghuz in the dying days of the caliphate claimed they had been ordered to leave by Baghdadi. "Had the caliph not ordered it, we would not have left," one woman told Agence France-Presse late last month, referring to Baghdadi.

Keeping a low profile - in contrast to slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - has helped Baghdadi survive for years.

Ms Sofia Amara, author of a 2017 documentary that unveiled exclusive documents on Baghdadi, said: "He had a vision, early on, of where he wanted to go and what kind of organisation he wanted to create."

After US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to depose dictator Saddam Hussein, Baghdadi founded his own insurgent organisation but never carried out major attacks.

When he was arrested and held in a US detention facility in southern Iraq in February 2004, he was still very much a second-or third-tier Islamist. But it was Camp Bucca - later dubbed "the University of Jihad" - where Baghdadi came of age as a terrorist.

Ms Amara said: "People there realised that this nobody, this shy guy, was an astute strategist."

He was released at the end of 2004 for lack of evidence.

Iraqi security services arrested him twice subsequently, in 2007 and 2012, but let him go because they did not know who he was.

Baghdadi was raised in a family divided between a religious clan and officers loyal to Saddam's secular Baath party. Years later, his Islamist group incorporated former Baathists, capitalising on the bitterness many officers felt after the American move to dissolve the Iraqi army in 2003.

That gave his leadership the military legitimacy he personally lacked and formed a solid backbone of what was to become ISIS, combining extreme religious propaganda with ferocious guerrilla efficiency.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 24, 2019, with the headline 'As ISIS crumbles, where is its caliph Baghdadi?'. Print Edition | Subscribe