Watchdog groups and U.S. government officials say the Islamic State’s leadership in its caliphate “capital,” Raqqa, are relocating to Deir Ezzor as a coalition of Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias, Turkish soldiers, and U.S. troops prepare to battle for the liberation of the southern Syrian city.
While reports surfaced of plotting to escape Raqqa as early as a month ago, various media outlets report a newfound desperation among the terrorist group’s leadership to reestablish itself in another location before they lose their most significant conquest. Islamic State jihadists are also reportedly fleeing Mosul, including “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The outlet Voice of America (VoA) cites a number of activists from the organizations Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – as well a leader of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – stating they have evidence indicating that the Islamic State’s leadership is looking to leave town and resettle in Deir Ezzor. Hussam Eesa of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently tells Voice of America that “dozens” of Islamic State vehicles have begun the march through the desert out of Raqqa. The outlet describes those fleeing as “high-ranking commanders and their families.”
“When the Mosul offensive intensified, IS brought many leaders to both Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and so now some of those deployed to Raqqa have been moved to Deir Ezzor,” SDF media advisor Mustafa Abdi told Voice of America. Mosul, Iraq, is the nation’s second-largest city and has been under Islamic State control since 2014. A coalition of Iraqi troops, Shiite militias, Kurdish Peshmerga, and others have liberated half the city from ISIS control while continuing the arduous push into the heart of the city.
At a press briefing Wednesday, an unnamed American defense official echoed what the activists on the ground told VoA: numerous senior Islamic State terrorists have fled Raqqa. “The overall picture the official painted of the Islamic State was of an organization losing significant amounts of territory but still determined to fight,” the Times notes, estimating that 15,000 ISIS jihadists remain throughout Iraq and Syria, while up to 4,000 of these are stationed in Raqqa. This number is significantly smaller than the 25,000 estimated to be located in the region a year ago. “Daesh is on the run [and] being degraded by every measure,” the official told reporters.
Similar reports, on a small scale, surfaced in February. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters last month that American intelligence had reason to believe Raqqa’s ISIS leadership had begun to flee the city. “An unspecified number of IS ‘bureaucrats’ are heading east along the north bank of the Euphrates River toward Deir el-Zour, because they see the end is near in Raqqa,” he said. At the time, those identified as fleeing were not jihadists but Sharia judges and other “non-combatant” terrorists.
As Islamic State terrorist officials began their escape, the group issued new decrees intended to keep civilians in the city to be used as human shields when the battle for Raqqa begins. “In the past, people couldn’t leave [IS] territory, but what’s new this time is that they can’t even leave their cities to other IS-held areas,” Eesa of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently told VoA last month.
The Pentagon announced this week that it had deployed Marines to the outskirts of Raqqa to begin the operation of uprooting the Islamic State terrorist group completely. The Marines will be working with the SDF to launch artillery attacks on Islamic State outposts. The U.S. government has insisted that its cooperation is with the Arab, not Kurdish, elements of the SDF following repeated protests from the Turkish government, which considers Syrian Kurdish militias terrorist groups.
While the Islamic State has steadily retreated out of its centers of power in Iraq and Syria, its members have expanded the group’s global footprint, with significant Islamic State activity occurring in Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and the Philippines.