World’s ‘most wanted’ sought in Syria offensive

PARIS: US-backed forces have launched an offensive on the IS group’s last stronghold in eastern Syria, but the man dubbed the world’s “most wanted”— IS 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 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 IS
having lost around 90 per cent of the territory it held at the height of its reign of terror.
In May, a senior Iraqi intelligence official said 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 travelling 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 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 Hajin in Syria’s southeast.
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 IS 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 IS holdouts, in an area around the Euphrates extending around 50 kilometres into Syria.
“This is the last bastion for IS mercenaries,” Zaradasht Kobani, a Kurdish commander with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said. “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 Muhajir,” Hassan said.
“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.
The anti-IS coalition may be hoping Baghdadi again gives away his whereabouts by mistake, as in November 2016 when Iraqi forces fighting to retake Mosul from IS picked up on a short radio exchange between him and his men.
“He spoke for 45 seconds and then his guards took the radio from him,” a senior Kurdish official who heard the call told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which revealed the near-miss in January. — AFP