From 'caliph' to fugitive: Baghdadi's new life on the run

The US$25 million bounty on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made him nervous, limits the number of his guards and restricts his movements, experts say.
The US$25 million bounty on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made him nervous, limits the number of his guards and restricts his movements, experts say.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BAGHDAD • Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is on the brink of losing the two main centres of his "caliphate" and is on the run, hiding in thousands of square kilometres of desert between the two cities.

ISIS fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the terrorist group's territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and officials said Baghdadi is steering clear of both.

"In the end, he will either be killed or captured, he will not be able to remain underground forever," said Mr 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."

One of Baghdadi's main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the US$25 million (S$34.6 million) reward offered by the United States to bring him "to justice", said Mr Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle Eastern governments on ISIS affairs. "With no land to rule openly, he can no longer claim the title caliph."

Added Mr Hashimi: "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.

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 terrorist group's leader Osama bin Laden.

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

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

Said Baghdad-based expert on extremist groups Fadhel Abu Ragheef: "The reward creates worry and tension, it restricts his movements and limits the number of his guards. He doesn't stay more than 72 hours in any one place."

Baghdadi "has become nervous and very careful in his movements", said Mr Talabany, whose services are directly involved in countering ISIS plots. "His circle of trust has become even smaller."

Baghdadi's last recorded speech was issued in early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle.

US officials believe he has left operational commanders behind with die-hard 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 of approved couriers to communicate with his two main aides, Iyad al-Obaidi, his defence minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, who is 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 Mr Hashimi.

At the height of its power two years ago, ISIS 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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'From 'caliph' to fugitive: Baghdadi's new life on the run'. Print Edition | Subscribe