Al-Baghdadi’s ISIS hideout was equipped with frequently used internet connection

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe Islamic State’s Syrian hideout that housed the group’s leader until his demise on October 26, was equipped with a frequently used internet connection, according to Arab media reports. Abu Bakr al-Baghdaid, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, was killed by United States soldiers in Barisha,  a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border.

The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. Moreover, it is heavily monitored by several intelligence agencies that have been looking for al-Baghdadi for years. It has therefore been generally assumed that the Islamic State leader’s hideout was kept isolated from the outside world and that no digital telecommunications means were used by its inhabitants, out of fear that they would be monitored by the Syrian authorities, Turkey, the United States, or others.

But a new report from the Dubai-based Al-Aan TV claims that the hideout was equipped with a frequently used internet connection and that it was active almost up to the moment US troops stormed the compound. The exclusive report, which aired on Thursday, alleges that the internet connection was set up in February of this year, and that it was used almost daily. The last time it was active was just 12 hours prior to the raid that killed al-Baghdadi and several members of his family.

The bill for the internet connection was approximately $8.00 a month and was paid by Abu Muhammad al-Halabi, a Syrian smuggler whose name also appears on tax records as the owner of the property, according to Al-Aan. The report provides no information about the type of online activity that the internet connection at the Barisha compound was used for.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: ISIS leader’s hideout in Turkish-controlled part of Syria raises questions

Turkey SyriaIn 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of his whereabouts. Today it is hardly controversial to suggest that at least some elements in the Pakistani government must have been aware of bin Laden’s location. Last week’s discovery of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a region of Syria controlled by Turkey inevitably raises similar questions about Ankara’s role in the Syrian conflict and its relationship with the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State was found hiding in Barisha, a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border. The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. The area north of Barisha has been under Turkish control since August of 2016, when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in cooperation with Turkish-baked militias in Syria. In early 2018, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces extended their territorial control further south, capturing Barisha and all surrounding regions. They remain in control of the area to this day.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is often described as a “proto-state”. It is governed by a collection of local councils of Turkmens and Arabs, with some Kurds and Yazidis also present. These councils elect representatives to the self-proclaimed Syrian Interim Government, which was formed in Turkey by Turkish-backed Syrian exiles and is currently headquartered in Azaz, an Arab-majority city of 30,000 that is under direct Turkish military control. Azaz is also the headquarters of the Turkish-backed “Free Police”, a gendarmerie-style militia that is funded, trained and equipped by the Turkish government.

In addition to the Turkish troops, the region is controlled by the Turkish-funded Syrian National Army. The 25,000 troops of the SNA —which is jokingly referred to by the locals as the “Turkish Syrian National Army”— operate completely under Turkish command. A substantial portion of the SNA’s force consists of former Islamic State fighters who switched their allegiance to the SNA once they saw the writing on the wall. Others are former members of the group that used to call itself Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become the most powerful Salafi-jihadist force in Syria after the demise of the Islamic State.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is also the base of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group consisting of over 20,000 fighters, which is not officially aligned with al-Qaeda, but has similar goals. Since at least 2017, Ahrar al-Sham has effectively operated as a Turkish proxy militia and is in charge of dozens of check points and observation posts throughout the region. Lastly, the area is home to Hurras al-Din, yet another Salafi-jihadist group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda —though its leaders deny it. The group is able to operate in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria with suspicious ease. It was this group, Hurras al-Din, that sheltered al-Baghdadi in Barisha in return for cash.

Given Turkey’s military and political control of Idlib province, the question arises of how the world’s most high-profile terrorist leader was able to enter the region and receive protection from a militia that operates there under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. The New York Times reports that al-Baghdadi had been living in Barisha for several months before last week’s raid, and that Washington had been aware of his hideout location since the summer. Was Turkish intelligence also aware of the Islamic State leader’s whereabouts? If not, how could that be? If yes, why did it take a Kurdish spy, handled by Syrian Kurdish intelligence, to locate him and provide information to the Untited States? More importantly, what exactly is the relationship between Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who seem to operate freely in Idlib and provide protection to senior Islamic State officials in exchange for cash?

There are clearly more questions than answers here. If the United States is serious about combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East, it must press Ankara on these questions as a matter of urgency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2019 | Permalink

US spy agencies pore over intelligence acquired in raid that killed al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAmerican intelligence agencies are studying up to seven terabytes of data that were captured by Special Operations Forces during last week’s nighttime raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. Officials in Washington told The New York Times on Monday that Delta Force commandos confiscated “a large amount of material” from the raid that killed the Islamic State leader. The material allegedly includes several laptops and cellphones, which contain an estimated “four to seven terabytes of data”, according to one United States official who spoke anonymously to the paper.

It is believed that al-Baghdadi changed hideouts across northern Syria every few days, so it is unlikely that he and his entourage carried with them a large printed archive of Islamic State files. However, even a few hard drives or memory sticks could contain extensive information, said The Times. The commandos that carried out the nighttime raid reportedly spent two hours on the ground collecting intelligence from the site. All of it has now been delivered to experts in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and other elements of the US Intelligence Community, who are currently “conducting a preliminary review of the confiscated documents and electronic records”, said the paper.

The information may shed light on questions such as if and how al-Baghdadi ran the Islamic State, how he communicated with the group’s military commanders across Iraq and Syria, and how he exchanged information with other senior Islamic State officials in the Middle East and beyond. There are also questions about al-Baghdadi’s links with the leaders of Islamic State affiliates around the world. Essentially, to what extent did the core leadership of the Islamic State under al-Baghdadi direct the operations of the group’s affiliates abroad? There may also be documents among the confiscated information material that discuss the Islamic State’s changing strategy following the collapse of its territorial base in the Middle East.

In addition to the confiscated information, American troops captured two of al-Baghdadi’s lieutenants who were guarding his compound during last weekend’s raid. The two men are currently being questioned by American interrogators and are eventually going to be handed over to the Iraqi government to face justice, according to The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 October 2019 | Permalink

ISIS quickly replaces dead leader with former Saddam loyalist, say sources

Abdullah QardashBarely a day after the United States announced the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the militant Sunni group has replaced him with an Iraqi former military officer, according to sources. US President Donald Trump said on Sunday that al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), died by detonating an explosive vest. He reportedly did so after being cornered by American Special Operations Forces troops at his hideout in the northwestern village of Barisha, which is located in the Syrian province of Idlib near the border with Turkey.

Since Sunday’s announcement by the White House, ISIS has remained silent. But an intelligence source reportedly told Newsweek that the Sunni militant group had appointed a new leader just hours after al-Baghdadi’s killing. The American newsmagazine cited a “regional intelligence official” who asked “not to be identified by name or nation”. The official said that al-Baghdadi had been replaced with Abdullah Qardash (pictured), a former high-ranking officer in the Iraqi army, who served under the country’s late leader Saddam Hussein. Qardash’s name is often spelled Karshesh in English, and he is also referred to in some documents as Hajji Abdullah al-Afari —presumably his ISIS moniker.

In August of this year, al-Baghdadi reportedly nominated Qardash to lead ISIS’ religious affairs engagement office, known as “Muslim Affairs”. The nomination is believed to have been accepted, and was even announced in Amaq, the militant group’s semi-official news agency. But Qardash’s name has not been mentioned again in subsequent ISIS communiques. According to Newsweek, the former Iraqi Army officer had already “taken over a number of duties from al-Baghdadi” prior to the latter’s demise. The anonymous regional intelligence officer told the newsmagazine that al-Baghdadi’s role within ISIS was “largely symbolic” in recent months. He was “a figurehead [and] was not involved in operations day-to-day. All he did was say yes or no —no planning”, added the intelligence official.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 October 2019 | Permalink

Senior Iraqi intelligence official rejects Russian claims that ISIS leader is dead

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiA senior Iraqi intelligence official has rejected assurances given by Russia that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State, is dead, insisting instead that the Iraqi-born cleric is alive in Syria. In mid- June, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that, according to its sources, al-Baghdadi had been killed. Subsequently, many Russian officials and political figures appeared to confirm Moscow’s report. On January 23, Russian media quoted Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Committee of National Defense of the Federation Council (the Russian Duma’s upper house) as saying that the likelihood that al-Baghdadi was dead was “close to 100 percent”. Last week, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it too was in a position to confirm that al-Baghdad had been killed, adding that the Islamic State had admitted as much in a statement issued to its senior commanders.

But Western governments, including the United States, have been reluctant to accept the Russian reports as accurate, saying that they prefer to wait for concrete proof of the Islamic State leader’s demise. On Sunday, the Iraqi government appeared to side with the skeptics. In an interview with the Baghdad-based daily Al-Sabah, senior Iraqi intelligence official Abu Ali al-Basri claimed al-Baghdadi was very much alive. Al-Basri, who supervises the Falcon Intelligence Cell, a US-trained counterterrorist unit operating under the Ministry of the Interior, said that the reports recently circulated about the rumored death of al-Baghdadi were “simply untrue”. He added that the founder of the Islamic State was “still living in Syria”, possibly at an Islamic State military facility on the outskirts of the organization’s de facto capital city of Raqqa.

Born in Iraq in 1971, al-Baghdadi has never been seen in public after his historic speech in June 2014, in which he proclaimed the creation of a so-called Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Speaking from the Grand Mosque in the old city of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which his forces had just conquered, al-Baghdadi issued a public call for supporters of the Islamic State around the world to join its ranks. But he never reappeared in public in the ensuing years, giving rise to occasional speculation that he may have been seriously wounded or even killed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2017 | Permalink

Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi abandons Mosul, say intelligence sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe leader of the Islamic State has abandoned the city of Mosul and is hiding in the desert zone of western Iraq, according to intelligence sources. Meanwhile Mosul, once the most populous city under the Islamic State’s control, is now reportedly being defended by a diminishing cadre of fewer than 3,000 Sunni militants, who are facing a 110,000-strong invading army.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the center of worldwide attention in July of 2014, when Islamic State troops swept rapidly through western Iraq and captured the region’s largest city, Mosul, in a spectacular coordinated attack. Soon after Mosul was captured by the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi led Friday prayers at Mosul’s Great Mosque and proclaimed himself caliph —emperor of the world’s Muslims. In the following months, the Islamic State reached the height of its power, commanding large expanses of land that stretched from the northern regions of Syria to the outskirts of Iraq’s capital Baghdad. Soon after al-Baghdadi’s public appearance in Mosul, the United States government set up a joint task force aimed at killing or capturing him. The group, which is still operational today, includes representatives from the Armed Forces, the National Security Council, and the Intelligence Community. Al-Baghdadi is believed to have stayed in Mosul, but has proven difficult to trace. He almost never uses electronic communications and is constantly on the move, sleeping at different locations every night.

Last October, US-backed Iraqi government troops, Shiite militias and Kurdish forces launched a large-scale military operation to recapture Mosul and drive out the Islamic State from the region. The assailants, whose combined forces are said to exceed 110,000 troops, reclaimed much of eastern Mosul earlier this year, and are preparing to launch a large-scale military advance on the western half of the city. While the operation to complete the recapture of Mosul is underway, American and Iraqi intelligence sources report that al-Baghdadi has not been public heard from since early November of last year. This leads many analysts to believe that the Islamic State leader has left the city and is now hiding in the vast and inhospitable desert that stretches along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Moreover, intelligence analysts claim that the Islamic State’s online activity has fallen sharply, to about half of what it was during the group’s peak in late 2014. This leads to the conclusion that the Islamic State is now increasingly focusing on essential functions aimed simply at the survival of the regime. The group has reportedly lost at least 3,000 fighters in Mosul, but an estimated 2,400 armed men have vouched to defend the city to the very end.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 March 2017 | Permalink

ISIS leader al-Baghdadi mortally wounded in airstrike, say sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The spiritual leader of the Islamic State is wounded so severely that he is no longer able to command the group’s daily activities, according to sources in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Islamic cleric who grew up in Samarra, Iraq, was appointed leader of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in May of 2010. Since that time he has served as the public face of the group, which has conquered territory in Iraq and Syria that is equal to that of Great Britain.

For over a month now, reports have emerged in various Arab media suggesting that al-Baghdadi is seriously hurt and fighting for his life. But there has been no confirmation of his whereabouts or fate. On Tuesday, however, British newspaper The Guardian said it had concrete information that the ISIS leader is wounded so gravely that he is unable to supervise the day-to-day operations of the group.

Citing sources in Iraq, including an Iraqi adviser and a Western diplomat posted there, the British broadsheet said al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded on March 18 during an airstrike on an ISIS convoy. The attack allegedly took place in al-Baaj, a Sunni-dominated tribal region of Nineveh Province, in northwestern Iraq. The area is located near the Syrian border, 200 miles west of the city of Mosul, a Sunni stronghold that is currently ruled by ISIS forces. According to the The Guardian’s sources, the ISIS convoy was attacked by jet fighters for routine tactical reasons. Neither the pilots, nor the commanders of the operation, were aware that al-Baghdadi was among the convoy’s passengers. The ISIS leader sustained life-threatening injuries and was unconscious when he was taken at a nearby hospital. Since then he has been recovering, but his life is still under threat.

One source told The Guardian that at one point last month, senior ISIS commanders called for an urgent meeting to appoint a new Emir (leader) for the group, because they were convinced that al-Baghdadi was on the verge of death. They eventually decided, however, to wait until after al-Baghdadi’s demise before appointing a new Emir. Since the ISIS leader’s wounding, the group’s Shura (consultative) councils have taken on an increasingly prominent decision-making role, says the paper.