British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters on Thursday that Islamic State “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had fled Mosul shortly following the release of an audio message in which al-Baghdadi demanded his jihadi fighters not flee their largest stronghold in Iraq.
The Guardian reports that Johnson described al-Baghdadi’s message as “cruelly ironic” since intelligence appeared to indicate that the terror chief had fled the city. “Some of the intelligence we have suggests he had vacated the scene himself and is yet using Internet media to encourage others to take part in violence,” Johnson noted.
This is the first such report to surface, as Kurdish sources near Mosul told reporters that al-Baghdadi was, indeed, hiding out in Mosul. “Baghdadi is there (Mosul) and, if he is killed, it will mean the collapse of the whole (ISIS) system,” Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani’s chief of staff Fuad Hussein was quoted as saying this week.
Al-Baghdadi’s message encouraged Islamic State jihadists to die for him and their cause. “Holding your ground in honor is a thousand times better than retreating in disgrace,” he argues. “This total war and the great jihad only increased our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that this is all a prelude to victory.” He also specifically encourages listeners to conduct attacks against Turkey, a nation Islamic State jihadis had previously claimed as an ally. Turkey is now actively calling for Iraq to give it a role in the liberation of Mosul and has moved troops into both Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon appears to be treating the al-Baghdadi message, the first of its kind in 2016, as a sign of desperation. “Baghdadi is saying, ‘Don’t fight amongst yourselves.’ This is the type of thing that a leader who is losing command and control and ability to keep everybody on the same page says,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said on Thursday. “We don’t believe it is going to work.”
As of press time Friday, the Iraqi operation in Mosul appeared to be succeeding, with Baghdad proclaiming its soldiers had secured the eastern neighborhood of Gogjali and moved west deeper into the city. The Kurdish outlet Rudaw cited official Iraqi government reports as placing their troops in the neighborhood of Samaha. “Military commanders told Rudaw the house to house search will continue in both Gogjali and Samaha districts for remaining militants in the area, asking residents to stay indoors,” the outlet reports.
Officials estimate that 6,000 Islamic State terrorists remain in Mosul; all expect the terrorist group to have laid an array of land mines and other traps for the liberating armies, as has occurred in Sinjar, Ramadi, and other regions where the Islamic State has previously met with defeat. The Iraqi army is the only armed group allowed into the city limits, with Kurdish Peshmerga forces securing the suburbs east and north of the city and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a mostly-Shiite militia, taking the west and south.
Mosul is the Islamic State’s last remaining stronghold in Iraq.