Early optimism that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “caliph” of the Islamic State, was pinned down in Mosul and close to capture or death seems to have faded. According to ABC News, U.S. officials now believe Baghdadi slipped out of Mosul, and they are uncertain of his whereabouts.
“There was a sort of ‘spidey sense’ at that time that they were close, but that has gone away,” a senior counterterrorism official told ABC.
U.S. intelligence evidently thought Baghdadi was hiding at a “site with religious significance” in a densely populated area of Mosul, which would have been difficult to hit with airstrikes because of the high probability of civilian casualties and the “Muslim backlash” from hitting a religious location, especially if it turned out Baghdadi wasn’t hiding there after all.
It now appears that Baghdadi did not spend a lot of time at this site if he was ever there at all. “We don’t think he’s in Mosul anymore. He’s on the move,” a counterterrorism official told ABC. In fact, some sources said he left Mosul months ago, although others speculate it was also possible he was long ago killed in an airstrike. Reliable intelligence on his location and disposition is extremely hard to come by.
One oft-quoted source for intel on Baghdadi is Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish president Massoud Barzani. In November, he told the UK Independent that multiple sources told his government Baghdadi was hiding in Mosul, in part because the death of so many senior ISIS commanders for Syria obliged him to rely on Iraqi officers. In fact, Iraqi media reported that Baghdadi’s “war minister” and right-hand man Ayad al-Jumaili was killed in an airstrike near the Syrian border recently.
Hussein also suggested Baghdadi’s presence in Mosul would inspire ISIS forces to fight harder for the city.
On Monday, Hussein talked to the Independent again and said Baghdadi escaped from the siege of Mosul two months ago, after ISIS used 17 suicide car bombs and 300 reinforcements from Syria to clear the road for him. He said the ISIS forces from Syria returned home immediately after this battle was over, amid “jubilant” Islamic State radio chatter about a successful operation.
A new documentary from Moroccan filmmaker Sofia Amara claims that Iraq’s elite Falcom Brigade almost captured Baghdadi in a house in Baghdad in 2013, but he escaped with just minutes to spare, using a hidden trapdoor.
The UK Daily Mail describes another scene from the documentary in which a girl describes Baghdadi’s residence as a “whorehouse” where “there was sex all the time,” featuring both multiple wives and girls brought in for the ISIS leader’s amusement.
The Daily Mail article cites U.S. and Iraqi officials who believe Baghdadi is currently hiding out somewhere in the desert near Mosul with some of his senior commanders, waiting for an opportunity to slip back into Syria.