MOSUL // US and Iraqi officials believe the leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battle of Mosul, and is now hiding out in the desert, focusing mainly on his own survival.
It is impossible to confirm the whereabouts of Al Baghdadi, who declared a “caliphate” from Mosul’s Great Mosque after his forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014.
But US and Iraqi intelligence sources say an absence of official communication from the group’s leadership and the loss of territory in Mosul suggest he has abandoned the city, by far the largest population centre his group has ever held.
Al Baghdadi has proved to be an elusive target – rarely using communication that can be monitored – and moving constantly, often multiple times in one 24-hour cycle, the sources say.
From their efforts to track him, they believe he now hides mostly among sympathetic civilians in familiar desert villages, rather than with fighters in their barracks in urban areas where combat has been under way.
The sources point to a sharp drop in ISIL postings on social media as evidence that Al Baghdadi and his circle have become increasingly isolated.
The ISIL leader himself has not released a recorded speech since early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he called on his followers to fight the “unbelievers”.
Since then, sporadic ISIL statements have mentioned attacks carried out by suicide bombers at various locations in Iraq and Syria, but place no particular emphasis on Mosul, despite the city being the main centre of fighting.
Neither Al Baghdadi nor any of his close aides released any comment on the fall of the eastern part of the city in January.
The group’s presence on Telegram, a social media network that had become its main platform for announcements and speeches, has also tapered off. The coalition estimates that ISIL activity on Twitter has fallen by 45 per cent since 2014 – when the group was at the height of its power – with 360,000 of the group’s Twitter accounts suspended so far and new ones usually shut down within two days.
Al Baghdadi, an Iraqi whose real name is Ibrahim Al Samarrai, is moving in a remote, mostly-desert stretch populated exclusively by Sunni Arab tribes north of the Euphrates river, according to Mr Al Hashimi.
The area stretches from the town of Baaj, in northwestern Iraq, to the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal on the Euphrates.
“It’s their historic region, they know the people there and the terrain; food, water and gasoline are easy to get, spies are easier to spot” than in crowded areas, he said.