SULAIMANIA, Iraq, July 17, (Agencies): A top Kurdish counterterrorism official said on Monday he was 99 percent sure that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was alive and located south of the Syrian city of Raqa, despite reports that he had been killed. “Baghdadi is definitely alive. He is not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent he is alive,” Lahur Talabany told Reuters in an interview. “Don’t forget his roots go back to al-Qaeda days in Iraq. He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing.”
The secretive Islamic State leader has frequently been reported killed or wounded since he climbed up to the pulpit of a mosque in Mosul in 2014 and declared a caliphate with himself the leader of all Muslims.
After leading his fighters on a sweep through northern Iraq, Baghdadi attempted to create a self-sustaining modern-day caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. He is now a man on the run, but still a cunning foe, said Talabany, who as part of the international coalition against Islamic State has been at the forefront of efforts to track Baghdadi down.
“He is not an easy figure. He has years of experience in hiding and getting away from the security services,” Talabany said.
“The territory they control right now, still to this day, is very tough territory. It is still not the end of the game for ISIL. Even though they have lost almost all of Mosul and they are getting ready to lose Raqa as well.” Iraqi security forces have ended three years of Islamic State rule in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and the group is under growing pressure in Raqa — former strongholds in the militants’ crumbling caliphate. Talabany said Islamic State was now shifting tactics despite low morale and it would take three or four years to eliminate the group as it takes to the mountains and deserts to stage hit and run attacks and unleash suicide bombers.
Primed for new battle
“They are getting ready for a different fight I think. We have a lot tougher days ahead of us than people think. “al-Qaeda on steroids,” said Talabany. “We saw why they were smarter. Al-Qaeda never controlled any territory. They will be smarter.” Numerous reports suggesting that Baghdadi had been killed have raised questions about who might replace him as head of a diverse group comprised of Iraqis and other Arabs as well as hardcore foreign fighters. Iraqi intelligence officers who served under Saddam Hussein have been described as the military strategists instrumental in creating an Islamic State reign of terror.
Talabany said it was hard to know which top Baghdadi aides were alive or dead, but he believes most of the leadership is in Syria, south of Raqa. A younger generation of Saddam’s former allies were expected to take key positions. “These are the people in line,” he said. “The younger generation is always more dangerous.” Security services face the daunting challenge of breaking up sleeper cells, typically made up of two facilitators and two operators.
“You don’t need a lot of guys to set a bomb off. We continue to bust these sleeper cells,” said Talabany. “Everybody we capture was getting ready to set up to carry out attacks in the region.” Talabany left Iraq when he was a 12-year-old boy, at a time when Saddam Hussein was oppressing the Kurds. His relatives were waging a guerrilla campaign from mountain hideouts. Asked to compare the challenges then compared to those now as Islamic State tries to recover and sectarian tensions threaten Iraq’s security, he said: “We have a lot more freedom now. But the problems are a lot tougher.”
Moscow, meanwhile, said it was struggling to confirm if Baghdadi is dead or alive, a month after reporting his possible demise. The Russian army said in June that it was trying to verify information that its jets killed Baghdadi during a bombing raid near the IS stronghold of Raqa in Syria. But over a month after the announcement Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia still had “no more precise information” on Baghdadi’s fate. “The information coming in is contradictory and is being checked by the relevant agencies,” he said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor, said last week it had heard from senior IS leaders in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province that Baghdadi was dead. But Pentagon chief James Mattis said on Friday that he could not “confirm or deny” if Baghdadi is dead, adding that Washington’s approach was to “assume he’s alive until it’s proven otherwise”. Baghdadi’s group has earned global notoriety for imposing a hardline form of Islam that has included stonings, beheadings and amputations as it has claimed the creation of a “caliphate” after snatching territory across Syria and Iraq.
IS US-backed Syrian fighters fought Islamic State militants in the heart of Raqa, the extremists’ self-styled capital, on Monday, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group. The Kurdish-led group has been one of the most effective forces fighting IS in Syria, but has also clashed with Turkishbacked Syrian forces elsewhere in the country. As it battled IS in Raqa, the SDF also fought Turkish-allied Syrian forces in Ein Daqna, in the neighboring Aleppo province, according to Syrian activists and Turkish media. The Syrian Democratic Forces, aided by the US-led coalition, launched their offensive to capture Raqa on June 6, and have since taken several areas. The Britain- based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s fighting is concentrated in Raqa’s southwestern neighborhood of Yarmouk as well as a central area close to the Old City. The SDF says intense fighting is underway in central Raqa, adding that its fighters have taken positions near a centuries-old mosque known as the Old Mosque.
The SDF said 11 IS fighters have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said 14 SDF fighters were killed in the fighting in Raqa on Sunday alone. The intensification of fighting comes a week after Iraqi forces declared victory against IS in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the largest the extremists have held.
The loss of Raqa would deal a major blow to IS, but the group still holds wide areas of the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, bordering Iraq. The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency says some 180 civilians were able to flee areas controlled by IS, while the Observatory put the number in the hundreds. The SDF is dominated by a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its own territory. Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces rolled into Syria last year in order to battle IS and halt the advance of the SDF. The US-led coalition has sought to stop the fighting between Turkey and the SDF, both of which are allies against IS.
The website of Turkey’s pro-government A Haber television said Turkish- backed Syrian opposition fighters launched a “large” operation against the SDF in Ein Daqna, close to the Turkish border. The website quotes unnamed local sources as saying that intense clashes are ongoing.