Five senior Islamic State commanders have been captured in a joint sting operation carried out by Iraqi and American intelligence operatives, Baghdad confirmed Wednesday.
Iraq’s external intelligence agency published a statement confirming the arrests, while Iraqi state television broadcast video of the prisoners in yellow jumpsuits. Described as “some of the most wanted” leaders of ISIS, Ismail al-Eithawi, Saddam al-Jammel, Mohamed al-Qadeer, Omar al-Karbouli and Essam al-Zawbai were shown explaining their positions within the group’s chain of command.
Their capture comes after a months-long effort to track senior ISIS officials hiding out in Turkey and Syria, culminating in a cross-border sting operation, the New York Times reported. It marks a major victory for the U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS and reveals a tightly coordinated intelligence relationship between Washington and Baghdad.
The mission has been in the making since February, when Eithawi, a close aide to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was captured in Turkey by Turkish authorities. Eithawi, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Zaid al-Iraqi, was then handed over to Iraqi intelligence for interrogation.
Using information provided by Eithawi, Iraqi and American intelligence officers were able to identify ISIS bank accounts and secret communication codes, Iraqi security advisor Hisham al-Hashimi told Reuters on Thursday. They also used Eithawi’s mobile phone to set a trap that would ultimately be used to nab his four ISIS comrades.
According to Hashimi, Iraqi agents sent messages to the other ISIS commanders, who were located in Syria, using the Telegram messaging app on Eithawi’s one phone. The messages convinced the militants to cross the frontier into Iraq, where authorities were lying in wait to arrest them.
Iraqi authorities described Eithawi and Jammel as the two most senior ISIS leaders ever to be captured alive. Eithawi had been in charge of fatwas, or religious rulings, in the so-called caliphate, officials told The New York Times. Jammel is a Syrian national who had governed all ISIS territory around Deir ez-Zor, the group’s stronghold in Syria’s eastern Euphrates region.
The three other ISIS leaders — Qadeer, Karbouli and Zawbai — were described as Iraqi nationals who had been some of the group’s top field commanders.
The capture of five high-level ISIS commanders is an especially sweet victory for Iraq, which lost nearly a third of its territory to the militant group in 2014. Iraqi forces have since retaken nearly all ISIS-occupied territory in Iraq, but the group still poses a threat along the Syrian border and has recently carried out guerrilla attacks and bombings throughout the country.
Iraqi authorities hope the prisoners will provide information leading to the capture of Baghdadi, the elusive ISIS ruler. He is thought to be located somewhere in the Iraqi-Syrian border region, forced into the desert backcountry after all of the caliphate’s cities and towns were liberated.
“The noose is tightening around him,” Hashimi said, according to Reuters.
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