The leader of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi allegedly fled the Iraqi city of Mosul, leaving behind some of his most zealous followers to fight in his stead, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of all Muslims, has released zero official communications since ISIS lost eastern Mosul and much of its territory in Iraq and Syria over the last year. While his exact location is unknown, officials believe he has fled Mosul, the caliphate’s largest city and de facto capital in Iraq.
The ISIS leader has reportedly engaged in some extreme measures to keep his location secret, including minimizing his communication and frequently changing his location, sometimes multiple times in one day, according to anonymous sources cited by Reuters. They speculated that Baghdadi is hiding among sympathetic civilians in Iraq’s desert villages, as opposed to his own men.
Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, the mostly Shia Muslim militias backed by Iran, reported in January that Baghdadi was trapped in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province. The militias pointed to intelligence reports to back their claim; however, exact details concerning the terrorist leader’s whereabouts are generally unclear.
Fadel Abu Raqif, an Iraqi security expert, claimed in February that Baghdadi was injured in an air strike along the Syrian-Iraqi border. He was then supposedly taken across the border into Syria. Reports of Baghdadi’s death or injury have become an almost regular occurrence, with various theories floated as to where the mysterious terrorist is hiding, or whether he is even still alive.
Baghdadi has no formal successor, but Iyad al-Obaidi (also known as Fadel Haifa) — a former security officer to Saddadm Hussein — is considered the deputy leader, Iraqi intelligence sources told Reuters. Even if Baghdadi is killed, others could rise in his place, according to Iraqi security expert Fadhil Abu Ragheef.
“There will be other commanders rising because the structure of the organization remains,” Ragheef told Reuters.
The Iraqi Security Forces, backed by U.S. air power, are in the midst of retaking western Mosul after a successful assault on the eastern side of the city in January. The retaking of the city would represent one of ISIS’s greatest losses to date.
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