BAGHDAD • In their long hunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February last year after one of the ISIS leader's top aides gave them information on how he had escaped capture for so many years, said two Iraqi security officials.
Baghdadi would sometimes hold strategy talks with his commanders in moving minibuses packed with vegetables to avoid detection, Ismael al-Ethawi told officials after he was arrested by the Turkish authorities and handed to the Iraqis.
"Ethawi gave valuable information which helped the Iraqi multi-security-agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi's movements and places he used to hide," one of the Iraqi security officials said.
"Ethawi gave us details on five men, including him, who were meeting Baghdadi inside Syria and the different locations they used," he told Reuters.
The path to Baghdadi's death was full of frustrations for Western and Arab intelligence agencies, which pored over clues to his whereabouts. Turning militants such as Ethawi was critical to the agents trying to track Baghdadi.
Ethawi, who holds a PhD in Islamic sciences, was considered by Iraqi intelligence officials to be one of the leader's top five aides.
He joined Al-Qaeda in 2006 and was arrested by US forces in 2008 and jailed for four years, according to the Iraqi security officials.
Baghdadi later tasked Ethawi with key roles such as delivering religious instructions and the selection of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) commanders. After the group largely collapsed in 2017, Ethawi fled to Syria with his Syrian wife.
Another turning point came earlier this year during a joint operation in which US, Turkish and Iraqi intelligence agents captured senior ISIS leaders, including four Iraqis and one Syrian.
"They gave us all the locations where they were meeting with Baghdadi inside Syria and we decided to coordinate with the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to deploy more sources inside these areas," said one of the Iraqi officials.
"In mid-2019, we managed to locate Idlib as the place where Baghdadi was moving from village to village with his family and three close aides," the official said.
Informants in Syria then spotted an Iraqi man wearing a chequered headdress in an Idlib marketplace and recognised him from a photograph. It was Ethawi, and they followed him to the home where Baghdadi was staying.
"We passed the details to the CIA and they used a satellite and drones to watch the location for the past five months," the official said.
Three days ago, Baghdadi left the location with his family for the first time, travelling by minibus to a nearby village. "There, it was his last moment to live," the official said.