IRAQ (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Iraqi intelligence teams, during their long pursuit of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made a breakthrough in February 2018 after a top aide to al-Baghdadi gave them information on how he escaped capture for many years, two Iraqi security sources said.
Ismail al-Ithawi told officials after being arrested by the Turkish authorities and handed over to Iraqis that Baghdadi sometimes held strategic talks with his commanders inside minibuses loaded with vegetables to avoid detection.
“Al-Ithawi provided valuable information that helped the team of multiple security agencies in Iraq complete the missing parts of the Baghdadi movement and where he was hiding,” said one Iraqi security official.
“He gave us details about five men, including them, who were meeting Baghdadi inside Syria and the different locations they used,” he told Reuters.
US President Donald Trump said on Sunday Baghdadi died “crying and screaming” in an attack by US special forces in Idlib, northwest Syria.
In a televised White House speech, Trump said Baghdadi and three of his children were killed in a raid by detonating an explosive vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel.
The road to Baghdadi’s fall was full of frustrations by Western and Arab intelligence services, which gathered ample evidence of the whereabouts of a man who had intimidated his authority across large swathes of Syria and Iraq, and ordered his men to carry out mass executions and beheadings.
He is also responsible for horrific attacks across five continents in the name of his radical version of Islam.
– Turning point –
The transformation of militants such as al-Ithawi was crucial for agents trying to track al-Baghdadi.
Al-Ithawi, a doctorate in Islamic sciences, was regarded by Iraqi intelligence officials as one of the top five aides to the leader. Al-Ithawi joined al-Qaeda in 2006 and was detained by US forces in 2008 and imprisoned for four years, according to Iraqi security officials.
Baghdadi was later assigned to al-Ithawi with key roles such as providing religious instruction and selecting leaders of the Islamic State. After the group largely collapsed in 2017, al-Ithawi fled to Syria with his Syrian wife.
Another turning point occurred earlier this year during a joint operation in which US, Turkish and Iraqi intelligence officials arrested senior ISIS leaders, including four Iraqis and a Syrian, the Iraqi security officials said.
“They gave us all the locations where they were meeting with al-Baghdadi inside Syria and we decided to coordinate with the CIA to deploy more sources inside these areas,” said one Iraqi official, who has close ties to multiple security services.
“ In mid-2019 we were able to identify Idlib as a location where Baghdadi was moving from village to village with his family and three close associates.”
He said that informants in Syria then spotted an Iraqi man wearing a multicolored headscarf in a market in Idlib and identified him from a photo. The man was al-Ithawi and was followed by informants to the house where al-Baghdadi lived.
“We conveyed the details to the CIA, which has used a satellite and drones to monitor the site over the past five months,” the official said.
Two days ago, Baghdadi left the site with his family for the first time, traveling by minibus to a nearby village.
“There were his last moments alive,” the official said.
– Local enemies –
Baghdadi was on the run from local enemies in Syria. HTS, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which dominates Idlib, was conducting its own search for al-Baghdadi after receiving information about his presence in the area, according to a leader of a militant group in Idlib.
Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State were rivals and fought bloody battles against each other in the Syrian war.
Jabhat al-Nusra, founded by Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, was the official partner of al-Qaeda in Syria until it broke away from the global organization in 2016.
According to the Idlib leader, al-Tahrir al-Sham recently arrested another Baghdad aide known as Abu Suleiman al-Khalidi, one of three men seen sitting next to al-Baghdadi in his latest video message.
The leader said that Khalidi’s capture was the “key” in the search for al-Baghdadi.
His comments raised the possibility that HTS, which locals say is believed to have links to Turkish forces in northwestern Syria, has passed on what it knows to other intelligence agencies.
Baghdadi may have concluded that hiding in Idlib was his best hope after the elimination of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The commander said he may have been able to mingle with security laxity and checkpoints run by armed groups that rarely search vehicles and have increased his chances of survival.
He said Baghdadi was believed to have been in Idlib for about six months and that the main reason for his presence there was hiding. But he said Baghdadi was still considered a major threat because his presence may have attracted supporters to an area with sleeper cells for the Islamic State.
He said HTS fighters raided the town of Sarmin about two months ago after receiving information about Baghdadi’s presence there but no trace was found.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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