In their long hunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February 2018 after one of ISIS 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,” Reuters reported one of the Iraqi security officials as saying.
“Ethawi gave us details on five men, including him, whom were meeting Baghdadi inside Syria and the different locations they used,” he told Reuters.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Oct. 27 that 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 ISIS leader died alongside three of his children when he detonated an explosives-laden vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel during the attack.
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.
Joined al Qaeda in 2006
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 ISIS commanders. After the group largely collapsed in 2017, Ethawi fled to Syria with his Syrian wife.
US, Turkey, Iraq joint operation
Another turning point came earlier this year during a joint operation in which U.S., Turkish and Iraqi intelligence agents captured senior ISIS 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.
“We passed the details to the CIA and they used a satellite and drones to watch the location for the past five months,” the official said.
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.
On the run from local enemies
Baghdadi was also 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 ISIS 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.
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 tried to hide in Idlib
Baghdadi may have concluded that hiding in Idlib was his best hope after ISIS 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 ISIS 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.
Don’t give credit to YPG, Turkey says
Turkish Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, meanwhile, said that credit should not be given to People’s Protection Units (YPG), as he commented on the operation that killed Baghdadi.
Kalın’s remarks were in response to Trump’s speech following ISIS leader’s death, during which he thanked several countries, including Turkey, as well as the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The spokesperson urged the U.S. to be “cautious” against giving the YPG credit, while he praised the overnight raid.
“This is a development that clinches determination in the struggle against terrorism. However, we see that there are efforts to give credit to the YPG terror group. Everyone needs to be careful about this,” Kalın told journalists on Oct. 28.
Turkey perceives the YPG as a terror group due to its links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an organization that’s designated by Ankara, Washington and the European Union as a terrorist one.
Also on the same day, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey and the U.S. were engaged in intense diplomacy and exchanged views on the operation the night it was carried out.
“Turkey and our U.S. counterparts shared information, exchanged opinions before the operation to kill Daesh leader started. That’s why Trump thanked Turkey in his speech,” Çavuşoğlu said, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.
Baghdadi given burial at sea
Elsewhere, the U.S. has given Baghdadi’s remains a burial at sea and afforded him religious rites according to Islamic custom, three officials told Reuters.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not disclose where the ritual was performed or how long it lasted. Two officials said they believed his remains were delivered to the sea from an aircraft.
U.S. Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news briefing on Oct. 28 that the U.S. military disposed of Baghdadi’s remains “appropriately, in accordance with our [standard operating procedures] and in accordance with the law of armed conflict.”
Given the gruesome nature of Baghdadi’s death, it was unlikely the U.S. military followed as complete a process as it did after Navy SEALs killed al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a 2011 raid into Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed by a gunshot wound to the head, according to the U.S. government.
In the case of bin Laden, his body was transported to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. It was washed before being covered in a white sheet, and religious remarks translated into Arabic were read over bin Laden’s corpse.
Bin Laden’s burial at sea triggered mixed reactions, with a prominent imam saying the United States violated Islamic custom by not burying bin Laden on land, a move seen as a U.S. attempt to prevent his resting place from becoming a shrine for extremist followers.
In the United States, some questioned why the man responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people was laid to rest with such respect.
Milley did not enter into details about any of Baghdadi’s last rites. Milley said that before the disposal of his remains, they had been transported to a secure facility to confirm his identity with forensic DNA testing.
“It’s been done and is complete,” Milley said.
Certain parts of op video may be released
Trump said on Oct. 28 he may declassify and release part of the video taken on Oct. 26 of the raid. 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,” Trump told reporters before flying to Chicago. “We may take certain parts of it and release it.”
But Milley declined to comment on whether he had video from inside the compound, which he described as a place where Baghdadi had been staying “on a consistent basis.”
“I’m not going to classify the video — what we do have, what we don’t have, at this time. I’ve seen a lot,” Milley said.
“And I’ll wait until everything is appropriately declassified here in the coming days.”
The United States on Oct. 28 confirmed the killing of Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, ISIS spokesman and a high-ranking figure within the group, in a separate U.S. operation, according to a senior State Department official.