‘His last moment to live’: How key informants and a daring raid led to the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
|National Post 28 Oct 2019 at 12:47|
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday that ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died “whimpering and crying” in a raid by U.S. special forces in the Idlib region of northwest Syria.
In a televised address from the White House, Trump said the terror boss died alongside three of his children when he detonated an explosives-laden vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel during the attack. A DNA test conducted on site confirmed that Baghdadi had been killed, Trump said.
But how did this sequence of events unfold?
The path to Baghdadi’s demise was full of frustrations for Western and Arab intelligence agencies, who have pored over clues to the whereabouts of a man who imposed a reign of terror across a large swathe of Syria and Iraq, ordering his men to carry out mass executions and beheadings. He is also responsible for gruesome attacks across five continents in the name of his ultra-fanatic version of Islam.
In their long hunt for al-Baghdadi, Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February 2018 after one of the ISIL leader’s top aides gave them information on how he escaped capture for so many years, said two Iraqi security officials.
Baghdadi would sometimes hold strategy talks with his commanders in moving minibuses packed with vegetables in order to avoid detection, Ismael al-Ethawi told officials after he was arrested by Turkish authorities and handed to the Iraqis.
“Ethawi gave valuable information which helped the Iraqi multi-security agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi’s movements and places he used to hide,” one of the Iraqi security officials said.
“Ethawi gave us details on five men, including him, whom were meeting Baghdadi inside Syria and the different locations they used,” he told Reuters.
Turning militants such as Ethawi was critical to the agents trying to track Baghdadi.
Ethawi, who holds a PHD in Islamic Sciences, was considered by Iraqi intelligence officials to be one of the leader’s top five aides. He joined al Qaeda in 2006 and was arrested by U.S. forces in 2008 and jailed for four years, according to the Iraqi security officials.
Baghdadi later tasked Ethawi with key roles such as delivering religious instructions and the selection of ISIL commanders. After the group largely collapsed in 2017, Ethawi fled to Syria with his Syrian wife.
Footage filmed near #Barisha #Idlib shows moments #US Forces destroyed location where #Baghdadi raid and subsequent clashes and chase took place pic.twitter.com/y6SBzh8hU1
Another turning point came earlier this year during a joint operation in which U.S., Turkish and Iraqi intelligence agents captured senior ISIL leaders, including four Iraqis and one Syrian, the Iraqi security officials said.
“They gave us all the locations where they were meeting with Baghdadi inside Syria and we decided to coordinate with the CIA to deploy more sources inside these areas,” said one of the Iraqi officials, who has close ties to multiple security agencies.
“In mid-2019 we managed to locate Idlib as the place where Baghdadi was moving from village to village with his family and three close aides,” the official said.
Informants in Syria then spotted an Iraqi man wearing a checkered headdress in an Idlib marketplace and recognized him from a photograph, the official said. It was Ethawi, and they followed him to the home where Baghdadi was staying.
Then, two days ago, Baghdadi left the location with his family for the first time, traveling by minibus to a nearby village.
“There it was his last moment to live,” the official said.
A satellite view of the reported residence of ISIL leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to the source, near the village of Barisha, Syria, collected on September 28, 2019, is shown in this handout image released on October 27, 2019 by Maxar Technologies. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS
Baghdadi had also been on the run from local enemies in Syria.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front and which dominates Idlib, had been mounting its own search for Baghdadi after receiving information he was in the area, according to a commander in an Idlib jihadist group.
The Nusra Front and ISIL were rivals who fought bloody battles against each other in the Syrian war.
The Nusra Front, founded by Abu Mohamad al-Golani, was al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria until it broke away from the global jihadist network in 2016.
According to the Idlib commander, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham recently captured another 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, the commander said.
There it was his last moment to live
His comments raised the possibility that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which locals say is believed to have contacts with Turkish forces in northwest Syria, may have passed on what it learned to other intelligence agencies.
Baghdadi may have concluded that hiding in Idlib was his best hope after ISIL was all but wiped out in Iraq and Syria. He could have blended in, while lax security and checkpoints operated by armed groups that rarely search vehicles increased his chances of survival, the commander said.
He said Baghdadi was believed to have been in Idlib for about six months, and that his main reason for being there was to try to hide. But he said Baghdadi was still seen as a major threat because his presence would have attracted supporters in an area where ISIL has sleeper cells.
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.
Making a move
According to Trump, who made the announcement about the terror leader’s death on Sunday, the United States began to receive intelligence on the whereabouts of Baghdadi around a month ago, including some “helpful” information from the Kurds.
In a description of events, Trump said U.S. intelligence officials were able to “scope out” the terrorist’s exact location two weeks ago, while Trump himself became aware of the planned raid three days ago. As part of the plan, the United States had to secure permission from Russia, Iraq and Turkey to fly over their airspace, according to Trump and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. Trump said the White House did not disclose the nature of the operation to Russia, but told Russian officials they would “like” it.
A picture taken on October 28, 2019 shows a vehicle wreck amid the rubble at the site of a suspected US-led operation against Islamic State (IS) chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the previous day, on the edge of the small Syrian village of Barisha in the country’s opposition-held northwestern Idlib province. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images
Moments after they gathered, U.S. military personnel and military dogs lifted-off in eight helicopters from an unidentified military base in the Middle East, according to Trump. The personnel came from the Delta Force, one of the U.S. special units mainly focused on counter-terrorism and often deployed to capture high-value targets. A U.S. official told Reuters the operation was staged from an airbase in western Iraq. The on-the-ground operation in the Idlib region of Syria was supported by military aircraft and ships, said Trump. The operatives were also equipped with a military robot but did not ultimately use it.
Upon approaching Baghdadi’s compound, the helicopters came under gunfire but U.S. forces were able to quickly suppress the assault and land safely. Believing the main compound door to be booby trapped, they entered in just seconds by blasting through the wall, said Trump. “We were getting full reports on a minute-by-minute basis,” he added.
U.S. forces quickly cleared the compound “with people either surrendering or being shot and killed,” said Trump. Eleven children were removed, uninjured, and taken into care by a third party whom the president declined to name. U.S. soldiers captured and later imprisoned several ISIL fighters.
An aerial view taken on October 27, 2019 shows the site that was hit by helicopter gunfire which reportedly killed nine people near the northwestern Syrian village of Barisha in the Idlib province along the border with Turkey, where “groups linked to the Islamic State group” were present, according to a Britain-based war monitor with sources inside Syria. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images
Baghdadi fled into a subterranean area of the complex and into a tunnel, dragging three of his young children with him. Esper told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that U.S. forces called for Baghdadi to surrender but the world’s most wanted man refused. Chased by the dogs and confronted by a dead end, Baghdadi — “whimpering and crying and screaming,” according to Trump — ignited his suicide vest, killing himself and his children and causing the tunnel to collapse. No military personnel were hurt although one dog was badly injured.
With Baghdadi’s body “mutilated by the blasts,” U.S. forces used a DNA test onsite to confirm his identity in around 15 minutes.
“The test results gave certain, immediate and totally positive identification. It was him,” said Trump. Speaking on NBC News’ Meet The Press with Chuck Todd on Sunday, O’Brien said: “We were in the Situation Room. And the commander of the mission called and said, ‘100% confidence, jackpot.”
A picture taken on October 28, 2019 shows Syrians sifting through the rubble at the site of a suspected US-led operation against Islamic State (IS) chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the previous day, on the edge of the small Syrian village of Barisha in the country’s opposition-held northwestern Idlib province. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images
The soldiers proceeded to search the compound, taking “highly sensitive material” including information on ISIL’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.
Baghdadi’s body will be “disposed of properly,” O’Brien said, adding that he expected it to be the same protocol followed in 2011 for Osama bin Laden. The al Qaeda leader was buried at sea after U.S. officials consulted with experts in Islamic law and ritual.
Trump said Monday he may declassify and release part of the video taken on Saturday of the raid in Syria in which al-Baghdadi was killed.
The video is believed to include aerial footage and possibly footage from cameras mounted on the soldiers who stormed Baghdadi’s compound.
“We’re thinking about it. We may. We may take certain parts of it and release it,” Trump said.
The video would need to be scrubbed to make sure no parts of it reveal tactical methods used by U.S. forces, a U.S. official said.
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