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

For years, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the world's most-wanted terrorist. Last weekend, American elite soldiers managed to find and eliminate him in compound in northeastern Syria. How did he end up there?

Alex Wong/ AFP

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One day, they would be coming to get him. He must have known that. After all, all the others who had helped transform Islamic State into a powerful organization and who had chosen him as their caliph -- they were all dead. Incinerated and torn to shreds by rockets from American drones or shot to death by Syrian rebels. Only he was still alive despite five years of ceaseless pursuit: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (IS).

But they would surely find him at some point. Witnesses say he was growing more and more nervous when he would hear the sound of helicopters or planes. Perhaps he sensed that one day, that noise wouldn't go away, that it would get closer and closer. And closer.

Baghdadi could hardly have known that the Americans were closing in on him this fall. For months, spy satellites and drones had been capturing images in the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, where the IS chief was hiding. They were able to draw ever tighter circles, until they ultimately zeroed in on a compound on the western edge of the village of Barisha.

The night of Saturday, Oct. 26, was cool, with the fall rains having started the week before. A while after midnight, the stillness of the olive orchards was shattered by the roaring of gigantic, twin-engine CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters and their accompanying Apache attack choppers. In total, eight helicopters were suddenly circling the nondescript house.

The explosions that followed a short time later destroyed one of the walls of the house, with the Delta Force troops wary of storming through the door due to the possibility of a booby trap. The helicopters opened fire when they were still some 50 meters (160 feet) in the air.

Taken By Surprise

Everything went according to plan. The Chinooks landed, the Special Forces soldiers jumped out and the translator who was brought along announced via megaphone in Arabic, tinged with either a Jordanian or Saudi Arabian accent, that all residents nearby should remain in their homes.

Four U.S. soldiers approached two large tents set up next to the walled compound and ordered the people inside to strip and come outside, promising that nothing would happen to them. This account comes from an eyewitness who described the scene to DER SPIEGEL later.

The people from the tent, taken completely by surprise, were handed florescent glowsticks so that they wouldn't be mistaken for targets. They were then led away from the compound, according to the witness. Meanwhile, the attack began in earnest.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 48, was the most-wanted terrorist in the world in those early morning hours last Sunday. Since March, there has been nothing left of the empire that his IS soldiers conquered in 2014, an area roughly the size of Jordan and home to millions of subjects. Indeed, only rubble is left from the horrific regime once established by IS, one that tortured and beheaded people and enslaved entire ethnic groups.

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The years in hiding had made Baghdadi extremely careful to the point of paranoia. Nobody carrying a mobile phone was allowed to come close to him, and he only communicated with the world outside via couriers, who would carry notes from him or verbal messages.

The imprisoned IS commander Ismail al-Ithawy described to the New York Times from his prison cell in 2018 how meetings with Baghdadi would go. First, he and other high-ranking members of the organization had to turn in all of their electronic devices, including watches. They would then be blindfolded and driven around in buses for several hours before they would eventually find themselves sitting across from Baghdadi. The visits were usually only 15 to 30 minutes long.

Baghdadi was constantly wondering: "Who is going to betray me," says General Yahya Rasul, spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry. The terrorist leader, he said, trusted virtually nobody and he and his bodyguards constantly wore suicide vests so that there would be no chance of being taken alive by their enemies.

Different Goals

On the night of Oct. 26, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also wearing a suicide vest. U.S. Defense Minister Mark Esper would later report that soldiers called on the IS chief to come out of the house and surrender. "He refused."

The fact that his pursuers were able to track him down in the Idlib province just a few kilometers from the Turkish border is likely to have come as a surprise to Baghdadi. Nobody, he likely felt, would expect him to be in Idlib.

The last Syrian province in the hands of the rebels is largely under the control of a jihadi group that is linked to Baghdadi by both ideological affinity and bitter hatred. Especially early on, in 2012, IS financed the Nusra Front because it was wary of operating under its true name, choosing instead to secure a foothold under the guise of an apparently local movement. But Nusra Front, made up primarily of Syrians, didn't share Islamic State's goals.

The men of Nusra Front pushed for the formation of an alliance with other rebel groups to fight against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But IS had different plans, secretly bound as it was with Assad's military intelligence agency. The terror militia and the Assad regime temporarily cooperated in an effort to keep other rebel groups in check.

In April 2013, there was a falling out between IS and the Nusra Front, which went on to swear allegiance to al-Qaida for a time. The IS leadership had a number of Nusra Front commanders murdered, and even killed the official al-Qaida representative in Syria in 2014.

The groups, in other words, may have been spiritual allies, but they were bitter enemies on the field of battle. The Nusra Front, under its new name of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), went on to become the most powerful rebel group in Idlib and recently took up to a thousand IS followers prisoner after they had fled from other regions to Idlib. It seemed unlikely that anyone would expect Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be hiding in the region.

But there was at least one man who did: His host on that final night, Salam Haj Deeb. In his mid-40s, Deeb is originally from the old-town district of al-Shaar in Aleppo. In one video that has been circulating on the internet since last Sunday, a nom de guerre is used to refer to him, which initially made it difficult to identify him.

A House in Barisha

Deeb joined IS early on, a group which had such different ambitions than the other fanatical Islamist militias and which was so much more advanced when it came to planning, execution and discipline. But starting in early 2013, IS began infiltrating the rebel-controlled areas of northern Syria without identifying itself. And Deeb was part of that effort.

In early 2014, the otherwise uncoordinated, independently operating rebel groups suddenly joined forces for an attack on IS. They had come to the delayed realization that this murderous, highly organized group was focused on taking over their territory. But once they unified, the rebels proved stronger than IS and drove the group out of Idlib and Aleppo. Deeb had to flee.

He only reappeared three years later, in Barisha. He had plenty of money, but none of the men with whom DER SPIEGEL spoke know where it came from. He gave no indication of his political leanings or his IS affiliation, saying only that he was proficient when it came to sheep and olives.

He bought a piece of property just outside the village with an unfinished, two-story structure surrounded by olive trees. He paid $25,000 in cash. Later, he opened a store in the neighboring village of Sarmada, selling lentils and beans along with milk and cheese produced by his sheep.

He hired men from the village to finish the house, appointed with lavish marble. A wall was built around part of the property. It turned out to be rather large for him and the family of his son Mohammed, but nobody thought it particularly odd.

Everyone in Idlib ended up hosting relatives looking to escape the violence, or they got married despite the ongoing war, or they rented out rooms to those who had been displaced. Before long, there were so many newcomers in the village that the close community of yore was no longer quite as close. After all, it seemed a good place to find shelter from the war raging in other parts of the country: Nobody in Barisha can remember the hamlet ever having been bombed: It was too close to the Turkish border and too unimportant.

It was, in short, the perfect place to go into hiding.

No Idea

Last Saturday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., a discrete guest arrived at the home of Salam Haj Deeb, as several witnesses would later tell DER SPIEGEL. They initially had no idea who he was, only that there were two women, a handful of men and children in his entourage as well. The most-wanted terrorist in the world had arrived, along with parts of his extensive family and his most trusted bodyguard.

At this point in time, Baghdadi likely had no idea that the countdown had long since begun. In just six to eight hours, he and almost all of those with him would be dead.

The U.S. had been trying to find the Islamic State leader for years. The Americans had managed to kill thousands of IS fighters from the air and had liberated the two large cities of Mosul and Raqqa, reducing them both to ruins. But they had been unable to discover the whereabouts of the top man on their wanted list, despite a $25 million bounty. It was the same amount set aside for al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri, but the search for Baghdadi was far more intensive.

Since May, the Americans had been pursuing a hot lead. The intelligence service of their Kurdish allies, the YPG, had managed to reconstruct Baghdadi's escape route and for the first time, there were clues as to his whereabouts. According to that reconstruction, he had left the Iraqi province of Anbar, to which he had escaped in January, according to intelligence information, in anticipation of the fall of Baghus, the last bastion of the IS "caliphate" in Syria. It is widely presumed that he hid in the desert of Anbar with a handful of confidants, waiting somewhere in one of the villages in the region.

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