Al-Baghdadi remains a phantom, despite a $25 million bounty on his head. As the U.S. pulls troops from Syria, experts say ISIL could resurrect itself
If ISIL is beaten in Iraq, why do its assassins target as many as 18 Iraqi tribal leaders a month?
If, as U.S. President Donald Trump says, the group is obliterated in Syria, why are its fighters still blowing up American troops?
Perhaps most importantly, where is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the phantom-like ISIL leader with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head?
Such questions are animating regional experts in the wake of Trump’s proposed 2,000-troop withdrawal from Syria, the reasoning for which has been contradicted by both Pentagon and State Department analysts.
Yes, ISIL is cornered in just a handful of tiny riverside territories near the Iraq border in Syria’s southeast, having once lorded over 55,000 square kilometres of terrain. Al-Baghdadi’s cross-border caliphate project is crushed.
But his Sunni militants now fight the U.S., its coalition allies, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi troops in a different way, and experts say the U.S. may be backing away at precisely the wrong time.
“The caliphate has been defeated or dismembered, but that’s not the same thing as saying the group has been defeated or dismembered,” says Bruce Hoffman, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“They have a viability that isn’t going to be conquered any time soon. I don’t know of a terrorism specialist that would make that claim right now.”
If al-Baghdadi remains a ghost, he has the potential to relaunch his group from the ashes.
After all, he has already done it once before.
Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
In his book Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Global Jihadist Movement, author Daniel Byman describes ISIL as, “Al Qaeda’s most important progeny and its greatest nemesis.”
Over the past 15 years al-Baghdadi has navigated internal wars to emerge on top, but really shot to global prominence with his declaration in July 2014 at the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq of ISIL’s caliphate and a call to arms to jihadists around the world.
“As for your mujahideen brothers, Allah has bestowed upon them the grace of victory and conquest … “ he said from the pulpit that infamous day, donning black robes as his followers, both willing and coerced, looked on.
“If you knew about the reward and dignity in this world and the hereafter through jihad, then none of you would delay in doing it.”
ISIL would later detonate that very same mosque, but al-Baghdadi’s message has survived. At its zenith, ISIL was buttressed by 40,000 fanatical fighters from 120 countries, all overseen by the man with a PhD in Islamic Theology who calls himself “Caliph Ibrahim.”
“He’s no dummy,” says Hoffman of al-Baghdadi. “He dissolved the Sykes-Picot era borders, and it took four years to roll it back,” he adds, referring to the 1916 pact that carved up the territories of the Ottoman Empire.
“He’s nearly been killed several times, but the fact that he’s still directing things gives them enormous strength.”
Known to have made just that sole publicized appearance, al-Baghdadi is even reported to use a mask when addressing his subordinates. But despite such secrecy efforts, he has reportedly been wounded at least twice — in a U.S. airstrike near Mosul, Iraq in 2015 and by what may have been a Russian missile near Raqqa, Syria in May 2017.
Before the decisive battle for Mosul in 2017, his escape was reportedly achieved after suicide bombers cleared a path for their leader.
He’s nearly been killed several times, but the fact that he’s still directing things gives them enormous strength
His effectiveness since being hurt is often questioned, but he is still said to move with a light entourage on the Iraq-Syria border, all the while hunted by U.S. special forces. As recently as August 2018, ISIL released 55 minutes of audio in which a man it claimed to be al-Baghdadi urged would-be terrorists to hit Canada.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, 2.0
Known as ISIL or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/al-Sham) or simply the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi’s group was conceived in Iraq following the U.S.’s 2003 occupation. The Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi initially led al-Qaeda in Iraq, a franchise sponsored by Osama bin Laden.
But al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and al-Qaeda in Iraq was almost wiped out by the U.S. troop surge that began the same year. After years of infighting — al-Zarqawi and his successors frequently clashed with al-Qaeda central leadership over the killing of civilians on both sides of the Sunni/Shiite dive — the movement splintered.
A 2.0 version of al-Qaeda in Iraq, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, had been led by al-Baghdadi since 2010 after emerging from the rubble of the surge. From 2011 he used the fog of civil war in Syria to gain thousands of fighters and eventually sweep back across Iraq in the summer of 2014.
Fully free from al-Qaeda’s shackles by late 2013, the ultra-barbaric ISIL had been born.
Hoffman describes al-Baghdadi as a “formidable, canny leader” as well as a megalomaniac; among the warlord’s suspected crimes are those against American hostage Kayla Mueller, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2013. U.S. officials say Mueller was repeatedly raped by al-Baghdadi, claims corroborated by Yazidi women who were also held hostage. Mueller’s death was reported in February 2015.
The difference between ISIL and al-Qaeda is that ISIL’s strategy sought immediate gratification for barbarity, Hoffman says: “Al-Qaeda also wants a caliphate, but it’s a matter of sequencing and timing. Al-Baghdadi says, ‘why wait?’”
ISIL now has followers across the globe willing to launch lone wolf terror attacks. Even in its present condition, it is still thought to be stronger than what was left of the Islamic State of Iraq after the 2006 U.S. onslaught. A recent study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates are now in 70 countries.
“Five years ago the only game in town was al-Qaeda, with a small number of franchises,” Hoffman says. “It’s not only about Iraq and Syria; they’re in Libya, the Sinai, Afghanistan.”
In Syria, ISIL’s lingering strength was illustrated by a recent bomb attack on U.S. troops in the northern city of Manbij, in which four Americans and at least 10 others died. ISIL had good intelligence, knew which restaurant U.S. forces ate at, and capitalized, Hoffman adds.
ISIL held 25 cities at its peak across Iraq and Syria. Now it controls none.
As its strongholds have fallen, so too have the oil fields from which ISIL made upwards of $2 million a day at its peak. But theirs was a diversified portfolio, rounded out by extortion and black market antiquities trading. The coalition has a dedicated finance team going after what’s left of ISIL’s money.
Most of those displaced by ISIL’s rampage have now gone home, with the UN estimating some four million Iraqis have made return trips.
Security expert Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, feels a realistic fighter estimate for the terror group is less than 5,000 in Syria and a similar number in Iraq, but says anyone talking about “tens of thousands” of fighters “must be counting everyone, even the tea boys.”
But sheer battlefield numbers, or land, may not be as crucial as many think.
ISIL lost Mosul in July 2017 after a battle of nine months, but as Hassan Hassan, author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror has pointed out, the group’s switch from holding what it had won, to hit-and-run warfare, was something it had been leaning towards since 2016.
In Raqqa the battle ran for four months; ISIL didn’t defend it as maniacally as it had Mosul. Instead, it made an early evacuation deal in October 2017, and has slinked away quietly from other cities.
“They’ve lost every battle that they’ve fought against Iraqi and Syrian forces,” says Knights. “But they are very good at dissolving back into the population.”
“It’s easy to be an insurgent. It’s really hard to be a counter-insurgent. This is the point where their life gets easy, and for the Iraqi government and its allies, it gets hard.”
“The group’s nadir was 2010, 2011,” he says, “but between 2011 and 2014, they said ‘we’re going to stop attacking the U.S.’ and they started attacking Sunni tribal groups that had turned on the Islamic State.”
Now, Knights’ own field research in Iraq shows ISIL is reverting to that proven drill.
In the first 10 months of 2018, it launched 1,271 attacks according to Knights’ data, including 135 attempted mass-casualty attacks. That hardly gives the impression of a defeated force, and he estimates ISIL still has “attack cells” in 27 areas of Iraq.
ISIL targeted 18.4 people for assassination per month in the first 10 months of 2018, he says, killing local figureheads to frighten the wits out of everyone else. Often, the victims are ISIL’s fellow Sunnis — local leaders they accuse of betrayal.
“Imagine if 18 mayors in Canada were getting killed every month?” Knights says. “It wouldn’t take long before everyone was terrified, all the time. Your system of government breaks down, and they (ISIL) seem invincible.”
Knights describes in detail what such terror does to people.
“They send away their children. They start paying off insurgents. They cut deals to look the other way. It shows you how effective this tactic is,” he says.
“(Eventually) the security forces slowly stop patrolling, and the locals slowly stop informing on insurgents. That’s why coalition forces, including Canada, are there training. To start reversing this dynamic.”
As for the man commanding these new, slower-burning horrors, Hoffman’s money says al-Baghdadi is in Iraq, shielded by millennials who gravitated to ISIL, and former Baa’thists and Saddamists who hitched their fortunes to the militants.
Though three in four Americans backed the plan, Republicans blamed President Barack Obama for allowing ISIL to grow by pulling U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. Hoffman says now is the time the U.S. should put its boot on ISIL’s throat, instead of Trump’s planned Syria pullout.
“George W. Bush and Obama both said that corners had been turned (on terrorism),” he says. “What concerns me is we’ve been down this path before. We let up pressure just as these groups are weakening.”
“This is a pathology in the U.S. that extends right back. It’s not just Trump.”