Daesh leader Baghdadi, world’s ‘most wanted’, sought in Syria offensive

US-backed forces have launched an offensive on Daesh’s last stronghold in eastern Syria, but the man dubbed the world’s “most wanted” could yet again slip through the net, experts warn. (AFP / AL-FURQAN MEDIA)
Updated 21 September 2018
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Daesh leader Baghdadi, world’s ‘most wanted’, sought in Syria offensive

  • There have been recurring reports of Baghdadi being killed or injured, but the elusive leader is believed to be still alive.
  • In August, he resurfaced in a purported new audio recording in which he urged his followers to keep up the fight despite Daesh having lost around 90 percent of the territory it held at the height of its reign of terror.

PARIS: US-backed forces have launched an offensive on Daesh’s last stronghold in eastern Syria, but the man dubbed the world’s “most wanted” — Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — could yet again slip through the net, experts warn.
There have been recurring reports of Baghdadi being killed or injured, but the elusive leader, whose only known public appearance dates to July 2014 when he proclaimed a cross-border caliphate from the pulpit of a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul, is believed to be still alive.
In August, he resurfaced in a purported new audio recording in which he urged his followers to keep up the fight despite Daesh having lost around 90 percent of the territory it held at the height of its reign of terror.
He also urged them to continue waging lone-wolf attacks in the West.
In May, a senior Iraqi intelligence official told AFP that Baghdadi had been moving discreetly between villages and towns east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzor province, near the Iraqi border.
He was traveling in a small group of “four or five people” including male relatives, the official said.
Iraqi political commentator Hisham Al-Hashemi, an expert on the Sunni extremist group, said his security sources told him Baghdadi was hiding out in the Syrian desert and regularly moved between Al-Baaj in northwest Iraq and Hajjin in Syria’s southeast.
As the caliphate crumbled, Iraqi forces and coalition-backed forces in Syria have killed or captured several Daesh leaders.
On Wednesday an Iraqi presented as Baghdadi’s deputy, Ismail Alwan Salman Al-Ithawi, was sentenced to death by a court in Iraq after being apprehended in Turkey and extradited as part of a joint Turkish-Iraqi-US operation.
In May, Iraqi forces claimed to have captured five top Daesh commanders in a cross-border sting.
The US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance launched Operation Roundup last week, the third phase of a year-old operation to clear southeastern Syria of its last Daesh holdouts, in an area around the Euphrates extending around 50 kilometers (30 miles) into Syria.
“This is the last bastion for Daesh’s mercenaries,” Zaradasht Kobani, a Kurdish commander with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told AFP.
“We will eliminate them here,” he said.
But reeling in Baghdadi will not be simple, said Hassan Hassan, a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University in Washington.
“He and his group learned from previous mistakes that led to the killing of the top two leaders in 2010, (al-Baghdadi’s predecessor) Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, and his war minister Abu Hamza Al-MuHajjir,” Hassan told AFP.
“This means that only a very few and highly-trusted people know where he is.”
The mountains, desert, river valleys and villages of the border area provide “several possible hideouts,” Hassan noted.
 


One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

Updated 18 October 2018
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One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

  • While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins
  • ‘The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future’

RAQQA, Syria: A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Daesh group from the northern city of Raqqa, traumatized civilians still live in fear of near-daily bombings.
“Every day we wake up to the sound of an explosion,” said resident Khaled Al-Darwish.
“We’re scared to send our children to school ... there’s no security,” he added.
The militants’ brutal rule in Raqqa was brought to an end in October 2017 after a months-long ground offensive by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces supported by air strikes from a US-led coalition.
But despite manning roadblocks at every street corner, the SDF and the city’s newly created Internal Security Forces are struggling to stem infiltration by Daesh sleeper cells.
At Raqqa’s entrance, soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes.
Inside the city, there are regular foot patrols and armored vehicles sit at strategic points.
Women wearing the niqab are asked to show their faces to female security members before entering public buildings.
“If there wasn’t fear about a return of Daesh, there wouldn’t be this increased military presence,” said Darwish, a father of two, speaking near the infamous Paradise Square.
It was here that Daesh carried out decapitations and other brutal punishments, earning the intersection a new name — “the roundabout of hell.”
While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins and there are near daily attacks on checkpoints and military vehicles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Although a series of stinging defeats have cut Daesh’s so-called caliphate down to desert hideouts, the militants still manage to hit beyond the patches of ground they overtly control.
Some Raqqa residents say the city’s new security forces lack the expertise to cope.
“We are exhausted. Every day we don’t know if we will die in a bomb explosion or if we will go home safe and sound,” said Abu Younes, sitting in his supermarket near a roundabout not far from Paradise Square.
“There is no security — (the new security forces) on the roadblocks are not qualified and there is a lot of negligence,” he complained.
“There are faults that enable Daesh to infiltrate the city easily and carry out attacks.”
But despite the continued attacks, a semblance of normal life has returned to the city.
Shops have reopened and traffic has returned to major roads — albeit choked by the impromptu checkpoints.
In a public garden, children climb up a multi-colored slide and onto dilapidated swings as their mothers sit on nearby benches carefully keeping watch.
They are set amidst an apocalyptic backdrop of twisted metal and splayed balconies — the remnants of buildings torn apart by US-led coalition air raids.
Nearby, Ahmed Al-Mohammed pauses as he listens to music on his phone. Like others, he does not hide his disquiet.
“We’re scared because of the presence of Daesh members in the city,” the 28-year-old said.
“The security forces need to tighten their grip.”
Ahmed Khalaf, who commands Raqqa’s Internal Security Forces, defended the work of his men and claimed successes against the militants.
He said patrols are highly organized and that a “joint operation cell” had recently been established with coalition forces to monitor the city’s security.
“Recently we arrested four (militants) — it was a cell that took part in attacks that terrorized the city,” said Khalaf, sporting plain green fatigues.
“We are continuing our investigation to uncover the other cells,” he added.
“Daesh’s goal is to destroy the country and to not let anyone live in safety,” he said.
Security and stability are what Najla Al-Ahmed wants most for her children.
“The nightmare of Daesh follows us everywhere — whenever we try to rest, explosions start up again,” said the 36-year-old, as she shopped with her young ones.
“The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future,” she said.