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The Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – Some initial Comments

By: Dr. Ely Karmon, Senior researcher – The Institute for Counter Terrorism, IDC Herzliyah.

This article is a compilation of much of the information published by multiple media sources since the killing by American forces of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS and former Caliph of the Islamic State, and a first evaluation of the organization’s future.

Paradoxically, much of the information about the complex US operation comes from President Trump himself at his triumphant press conference.

Intelligence

Contrary to the operation for the killing of Osama bin-Laden in May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a purely US operation in the territory of an allied state, the “Kayla Mueller Operation” (in memory for the American humanitarian worker, taken prisoner by ISIS in 2013, given as a wife to Baghdadi, raped multiple times and then assassinated), is a complex multi-national and multi-actors operation. It is a miracle the top-secret affair was not leaked before completion.

“We had him under surveillance for a couple of weeks,” said President Trump during his news conference announcing al-Baghdadi’s death.[1]

Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February 2018 after Ismael al-Ethawi, one of the Islamic State leader’s top aides, was arrested by Turkish authorities and handed to the Iraqis. He gave information on how he escaped capture for so many years and helped the Iraqi multi-security agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi’s movements and places he used to hide.[2]

Iraqi authorities arrested two of Baghdadi’s wives in September, one of whom sometimes acted as a courier. The courier gave up details about his location, which triggered the surveillance activitythat allowed American, Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence officials to narrow down al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts to the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, The New York Times reported, citing American sources.

Other American sources said Kurds to be main source of intelligence, their cooperation unhinged even after the US pullout was announced.[3]

“Since 15 May, we have been working together with the CIA to track al-Baghdadi and monitor him closely,” said Polat Can, a senior adviser to the SDF. The group had an informant who was able to infiltrate Baghdadi’s house. “Al-Baghdadi changed his places of residence very often…Our intelligence source was involved in sending coordinates, directing the airdrop, participating in and making the operation a success until the last minute,” Polat Can said. The source also “brought al-Baghdadi’s underwear to conduct a DNA test and make sure (100 per cent) that the person in question was al-Baghdadi himself,” he said.[4]

Kurdish leaders blamed a Turkish assault on northeast Syria for delaying the Baghdadi operation by more than a month.[5] Moreover, they said IS spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, described as Baghdadi’s right-hand man, had been killed in a separate joint operation with the US military near the northern Syrian town of Jarablus.[6]Senior SDF official Redur Xelil said at a news conference that the forces would now intensify intelligence operations and efforts to chase down Islamic State sleeper cells.

The Russian Ministry of Defence denied that it was aware of any assistance that Russia had allegedly provided to the U.S. air forces, state-run RIA news agency reported.[7]

According to an Idlib commander, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham recently captured an aide to Baghdadi known as Abu Suleiman al-Khalidi, one of three men seen sitting alongside Baghdadi in his last video message. The capture of Khalidi was “the key” in the search for Baghdadi, raising the possibility that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which have contacts with Turkish forces in northwest Syria, may have passed on what it learned to other intelligence agencies.Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters raided the town of Sarmin about two months ago after receiving information about Baghdadi being there, but he was not found, according to the commander.[8]It should be stressed that The Nusra Front (today HTS) and Islamic State were rivals who fought bloody battles against each other in the Syrian war.

According to jihadi sources in Syria and Iraqi intelligence, Baghdadi’s two-storey building complex, complete with underground tunnels, was owned by a shadowy figure known as Abu Mohamed al-Halabi. Halabi was part of Hurras al-Din, a split faction of HTS, considered the local al-Qaeda offshoot. Halabi was also a known border smuggler who could have helped Baghdadi’s family escape to Turkey. Hurras al-Din is struggling financially and had witnessed a drop in numbers as it was struggling to pay salaries. This could be a good, economic, reason to provide intelligence to interested parties on the fierce enemy of al-Qaeda leadership.[9]

 

The location of the safe compound

Details are still emerging as to Baghdadi’s compound in Barisha village and why the ISIS chief was hiding out deep in territory more commonly associated with rival jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), led by former Baghdadi associate Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who built Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, Nusra Front.

Barisha, a small village in northwestern Syria is located less than five kilometers from Turkey and close to Bab al-Hawa, one of the main border crossings between the two countries, but far from the regions where US forces were deployed and used to operate.The area is mountainous and sparsely populated, about 25 kilometers north of Idlib city, the capital of the province controlled by HTS.Several other reports at the time of the fall of Baghouz in early 2019 also mentioned that convoys of operatives had snuck into Idlib province, despite IS’s bitter rivalry with al-Qaeda and HTS.[10]

U.S. Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the compound as a place where Baghdadi had been staying “on a consistent basis.”[11]

This author evaluates that the compound was prepared as a safe hiding place long ago, when ISIS controlled the region and this explains how many tunnels were ready to be used by Baghdadi and his companions.

 

The operation

Taking off in eight helicopters from northern Iraq, the US troops flew over hostile territory for hundreds of miles in the early Sunday morning darkness.The helicopters needed to cross airspace controlled by Iraq, Turkey and Russia, and U.S. officials told them they had an operation planned without providing details.[12]

The president said the military’s “top operations people” were involved in the raid, without identifying their units. US officials with knowledge of the operation, said the raid included some members of Delta Force, an elite unit that can include members from any service.

“Less than 100” US troops were on the ground in the raid, with more involved in a supporting role, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said. Several kinds of aircraft were used in the operation, including CH-47 helicopters. They came under fire early in the mission from “locals in the area,” and the Americans returned fire in self-defense.

Esper said that US troops tried to call Baghdadi out of the compound, but that he did not cooperate. The Americans confirmed his death through visual identification and a DNA sample. Amid the special forces’ operation, Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest alongside several young children he had grabbed to use as human shieldsinside a “dead-end” tunnel, according to Trump. No U.S. personnel were killed in the operation although a search dog was injured.

Five enemy fighters were killed in the operation inside the compound, and others were killed outside, the White House said in a statement.

The American soldiers searched the compound, taking “highly sensitive material” including information on Islamic State’s origins and its future plans. In total, U.S. forces were in the compound for around two hours before flying back out via the same route they flew in.

Trump praised Russia, which opened up the airspace it controls for the operation. It is obvious that there was need to coordinate with Russian forces stationed at Khmeimim Air Base, located south-east of the city of Latakia, Syria. The Pentagon has called such communication “deconfliction” and said it has prevented accidents and mistaken intent by adversary forces. NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, General Philip Breedlove said in the past, that the kind of military infrastructure that Russia had installed in Syria, which included anti-aircraft defence systems, was a de facto no-fly zone. The question is how much the Russians were told or new from their sources about the goal of the operation.

Trump also said Turkey was “terrific” in its assistance, and that U.S. forces flew over Turkish-held territory en route to al-Baghdadi’s compound. Al-Baghdadi arrived at the location in Syria some 48 hours before the operation, a senior Turkish official said. The Turkish army had advance knowledge of the U.S. operation in Syria’s Idlib.[13]

The United States has given the remains of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a burial at sea and afforded him religious rites according to Islamic custom after he was killed in a U.S. commando raid in Syria on Saturday, three officials told Reuters.

 

Political and strategic implications

President Trump has won a political and propaganda battle against the Democrats in the difficult period of the impeachment process in an election year. He can also argue against his detractors that his strategy of extracting US military forces from Syria was right and proved that ISIS can be fought without their presence on the ground. Which by the way is not sure at all, as Iraq is opposed to the transfer of these forces to its territory.

Turkey and Erdogan used the event to strengthening his negotiation standing in the area and keeping good relations with Trump.

Russia also can be happy with the praise from Trump and getting rid of a bitter enemy at a moment it plans to support the last thrust by the Damascus regime against the opposition forces in the Idlib province.

Iran, almost as usual in the last decades, has the United States making the “dirty work” for it, by annihilating its stark enemies.

It is still possible that the American president will reconsider his attitude versus the helpful Syrian Kurds, due to their positive role in the continuation of the battle against the revival of ISIS but also as his main interest is to have someone to defend the endangered “oil fields.”

Trump said he’s interested in making a deal with ExxonMobil or another energy company to tap Syrian oil reserves. He has identified Syria’s oil as a U.S. national security priority and has committed to deploying troops to protect the country’s reserves even as he pulls troops from Syria’s northern regions. “The oil is so valuable, for many reasons,” Trump commented while announcing the death of al-Baghdadi. “It fueled ISIS, number one. Number two, it helps the Kurds – because it’s basically been taken away from the Kurds… And, number three, it can help us, because we should be able to take some also.” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this week that the U.S. will send in troops to protect Syrian oil fields from Islamic State militants.[14]

 

The future of ISIS and the larger jihadi movement

Defense Secretary Esper claimed that Baghdadi’s death is a “devastating blow to ISIS. This is not just their leader, it’s their founder. He was an inspirational leader in many ways. He formed ISIS in 2014, he led to establishing the physical caliphate throughout the region, so this is a major blow to them.”[15]

However, like in the case of the killing of Osama bin- Laden in 2011, the disappearance of al-Baghdadi is mainly a moral and psychological coup to the organization and his followers and a short-term destabilization of its structure.

It is not sure that in his continuous movements from one hiding safe house to another he succeeded to control and command the ISIS’s many global factions, besides perhaps the forces in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, in contrast to bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, he appeared extremely rarely in the media and his impact was minor at this level, especially after the closing of many of his propaganda outlets.

Already in the spring of 2017 (before the fall of Mosul), the ISIS leadership took two strategic decisions:

– Building an underground insurgency in Iraqi Sunni territory (similar to the one before the 2006/7 Surge – the sahwa). Indeed, this move has been successful and ISIS is staging daily dozens of terrorist attacks, including car suicide bombings, in these territories. The fate of the thousands of ISIS men and women fighters imprisoned in camps in Kurdish territory, and even in Iraq, can depend on escape operations like in the 2007-2010 period. Baghdadi has already called upon these prisoners to do their best to escape and continue the fight.

– Relocation has been also successful. In Afghanistan, ISIS controls territory in northwest and northeast of the country, in spite of fierce opposition of the Taliban. In Libya, after losing Derna and Sirte, the organization has regrouped on the Tunisian border and in the desert in the south and opened new training camps. The attempts to relocate to the Sinai and Yemen have been less successful.

Following media reports that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi killing by U.S. forces, supporters of the organization on social media express skepticism, stress the need to rely only on official ISIS outlets, and defiantly declare that jihad will continue, even if the news is true.[16]

According to numerous sources, Abdullah Qardash, also known as Hajji Abdullah al-Afari, has reportedly been appointed the new leader of ISIS.Little is known about him but he once served under Saddam Hussein in Iraq.He was chosen by Baghdadi in August to run the group’s “Muslim affairs,” according to ISIS’ official Amaq news outlet.[17]Qardash had been loyal to Baghdadi after they were held together at the Camp Bucca detention center in Basra after being jailed by US forces over their links to al Qaeda in 2003. Described by researchers at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore “as cruel and authoritarian yet popular and well-respected among other IS members, Qardash was responsible for eliminating those who are against al-Baghdadi’s style of leadership.”[18] Qardash claims to hail from the Quraysh tribe, a requirement for the caliph under Sunni jurisprudence.[19]

So Qardash is not far from the type of leader Baghdadi was.

See below an enlightening diagram of ISIS structure and a map of its global spread, published lately by the Institute for the Study of War.[20]

What is sure is that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s disappearance, strengthens al-Qaeda Central under Zawahiri’s leadership and its robust factions in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, most of the Sahel and northern Africa.

For ISIS, we have to follow the events.

 

 


[1]  White House, “Remarks by President Trump on the Death of ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” October 27, 2019.

[2]  Ahmed Rasheed, “Exclusive: Baghdadi’s aide was key to his capture – Iraqi intelligence sources,” Reuters, October 28, 2019.

[3]  “US raid that killed al-Baghdadi started with arrest of his wife and a courier: report,” i24NEWS, October 27, 2019.

[4]  “Syrian Kurd spy ‘stole Baghdadi’s underpants for DNA test’” Agence France-Presse, October 29, 2019.

[5]  “Syria’s SDF says its intelligence helped locate Baghdadi,” Reuters, October 27, 2019.

[6]   “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: IS leader ‘dead after US raid’ in Syria,” BBC News, 28 October 2019.

[7]  “Russian Defense Ministry: we are unaware of alleged assistance in Baghdadi operation: RIA,” Reuters, October 27, 2019.

[8]  “IS chief Baghdadi’s aide was key to his capture,” Reuters, October 28, 2019.

[9]   Bel Trew, “How al-Baghdadi was caught after years in hiding, and who in Isis will take,” The Independent, October 29, 2019.

[10]  “Barisha, the Syrian village where Baghdadi died,” France24, October 27, 2019.

[11] “Baghdadi given burial at sea, afforded religious rites, Reuters, October 29, 2019.

[12]  Dan Lamothe, “How Elite US Forces Launched “Dangerous Nighttime Raid” To Kill Baghdadi,” The Washington Post, October 28, 2019.

[13]  “IS leader Baghdadi arrived at area of U.S. raid 48 hours beforehand: Turkish official,” Reuters, October 27, 2019.

[14]  “Trump wants to make a deal with Exxon or others to tap Syrian oil: ‘We should be able to take some’”, CNBC, October 27, 2019.

[15]  Devan Cole and Greg Clary, “Defense Secretary Mark Esper: Baghdadi’s death is a ‘devastating blow’ to ISIS,” CNN, October 27, 2019.

[16] See a detailed report of these reactions by MEMRI “ISIS Supporters Respond Defiantly To Reports Of Al-Baghdadi’s Death: Jihad Is Not Founded On Men,” Special Dispatch No.8334, October 27, 2019.

[17]  Tom O’Connor and Naveed Jamali,” ISIS Already Has A New Leader, But Baghdadi May Not Have Been Running The Group Anyway,” Newsweek, October 27, 2019.

[18]  Lee Brown, “ISIS already has a new leader in former Saddam Hussein officer,” New York Post, October 28, 2019.

[19]  Giorgio Cafiero, “New IS leader takes over following Baghdadi’s death,” Al-Monitor, October 28, 2019.

[20]  Jennifer Cafarella and Brandon Wallace with Caitlin Forrest, “Baghdadi Leaves Behind a Global ISIS Threat,” ISW, October 27, 2019.

Published by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC Herzliya.