Tracking Baghdadi The Hunt for the World's Most-Wanted Terrorist

Alex Wong/ AFP

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Part 2: 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.

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