Counter-Terrorism: Another Difficult Manhunt

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October 11, 2020: After the founder and leader of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was killed during an American raid in October 2019, every one wondered who the successor would be. ISIL keeps quiet about senior leaders, often trying to keep their identities secret, but aApparently appointed Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Sabli, a 43-year-old former Iraqi army officer (under Saddam Hussein) as the successor to founder and leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

Sabli was a close associate of Baghdadi even before ISIL was founded in 2013. They first met in 2004 while both were prisoners in an American detention center in southern Iraq. Saddam had a “Plan B” if his forces were defeated and that consisted of loyalists organizing a nationalist Islamic terror group to drive the foreigners out and restore the Sunni minority to power. The Iraqi Islamic terrorists allied themselves with al Qaeda. Plan B fell apart in 2008 when even Iraqi Sunnis grew tired of the endless terrorist violence that killed more Sunnis than foreign troops. Sabli was captured in 2008 and was known to be a mid-level leader of the Iraqi Islamic terrorists that had fancied themselves the new Islamic caliphate. That never caught on back then and those Sunni Islamic terrorists who had survived went underground as leaders like Baghdadi sought to rebuild and try again. Sabli was freed in 2009 for reasons unknown. After he became head of ISIL it was revealed why he was let go in 2009. Sabli made a deal. He revealed the names and other information on 68 al Qaeda associates. This was sufficient to find and capture or kill most of the 68. Sabli promised to terrorize no more and was cut loose. It is unclear how he explained his release to fellow Internet and the Americans did not make public why for eleven years. Now that Sabli is the head of the most violent Islamic terrorist organization in the world, it was the thought that releasing details of Sablis activities in 2008-9 might cause him, and ISIL, some problems. It might even cause someone to share information on where Sabli is hiding out. That was how Baghdadi was tracked down.

The 2019 raid that killed Baghdadi was made possible by knowing exactly where he was. As expected, finding and confirming the location of Baghdadi was a complex process made easier by the fact that ISIL and Baghdadi had made a lot of enemies over the years, especially among rival Islamic terror groups. Most of the territory controlled by ISIL since 2014 had been liberated by late 2017, leaving a lot of ISIL members demoralized and many of those deserted. Just leaving ISIL is forbidden and those caught are executed. Many of those who did get out went back to the al Qaeda groups they belonged to before switching to the seemingly more effective (for a time) ISIL. This played an important role in tracking down Baghdadi because most remaining Syrian Islamic terrorists are now members of the al Qaeda dominated HTS coalition. Most HTS members are trapped in northwest Syria (Idlib province). Syrian and Russian forces have been slowly retaking HTS territory since early 2019. In response, HTS leadership has been trying to negotiate a deal with Turkey to allow some of the more trustworthy (to the Turks) HTS members to escape, unarmed, into Turkey with their families. These al Qaeda members would join other Islamic terrorists (like Hamas) who are allowed to operate out of Turkey as long as they do not harm Turks and provide information and assistance to Turkey when requested. This has long been an accepted practice in the Middle East, and some parts of Europe, to reduce Islamic terrorist violence in the host country. Because some HTS factions are still allied with ISIL, these Idlib connections proved an effective source of information during the search for Baghdadi. To help using these contacts to find Sabli a $5 million dollar reward has been offered for information leading his capture or death.

Iraqi intelligence got the first of many leads that led to the Baghdadi hideout. He was always elusive and, by 2017, many ISIL members were ordered to get out of Syria and Iraq and set up operations elsewhere. It was unclear if that included Baghdadi. ISIL was also trying to use Turkey as a base of operations but that was proving difficult because Turkey was definitely not “ISIL-friendly”. This led to a lot of ISIL members getting caught trying to enter Turkey with phony travel documents. The Turks, Americans, Iraqi sand Syrians had established an official (and unofficial) “watch list” of key ISIL members who might try to get in and out of Turkey with false documents, so more and more of these men were getting caught. Most were turned over to Iraq, if only because most of the senior ISIL leaders were Iraqi. Once in the custody of Iraqi intelligence, interrogations (including threats against family members still in Iraq) usually produced useful information.

Sabli has a brother who is a Turkish citizen and the leader of a political party. Sabli was in touch with his brother until assuming the leadership of ISIL. The Turkish government sees such contacts as an asset if the Turkish end of the connection is willing to keep the Turkish government informed. Sabli and his brother have an advantage as both are Turkmen, a Turkish minority that is found all over the Middle East and will generally cooperate with Turkey if they can. Sabli has fewer family members than Baghdadi and is equally, if not more, secretive and security conscious.

These family or business connections can be a vulnerability. This was the case with Ismael al Ethawi, a top ISIL operative, who often met with Baghdadi. He was caught by the Turks in February 2018 and turned over to the Iraqis. Ethawi provided valuable details on how ISIL personnel operated in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, including names of people who helped them. Many of these new names were involved in establishing and maintaining the network of safe houses, usually compounds, Baghdadi moved around to on an irregular basis. This made Baghdadi a moving target and to carry out a raid to kill or capture him, you had to know where the safe houses were, and how the moves were made and who took care of the details. The Ethawi information was a big break because it soon confirmed that Baghdadi was moving among various locations in Idlib province. The next step was to narrow it down to which location and when.

Another breakthrough was Iraqis arresting two of Baghdadi’s wives. One of them was found to sometimes serve as a courier to carry information, often memorized, to and from Baghdadi. She confirmed some of the safe house locations and details of how those safe houses operated. This included house staff, security procedures and how the “household” was periodically moved. Some of this information was shared with the Turks and autonomous Syrian Kurds in northeast Syria. Both the Turks and Kurds had informants in Idlib, and these operatives could be used to double-check some details of what was now known about Baghdadi safe houses. The Americans also had regular video and electronic surveillance over Idlib and now had something specific about Baghdadi to look for. The Kurds arranged for an informant to get work at one of the Baghdadi safe houses Baghdadi was believed to be in. This produced some dirty laundry to be washed, but some Baghdadi underwear was handed over to the Americans who checked it for DNA and confirmed that Baghdadi had worn it.

As helpful as the Kurds were, the Turks sometimes proved to be an obstacle. While all this intel collecting was going on the Turks had invaded Kurdish territory east of Idlib and this delayed the Baghdadi raid by at least a month. At this point, it was possible to track the movements from one safe house to another. Not accurately enough catch Baghdadi on the move, but enough to know when he was in which safe house.

Key items of information also came from sources in HTS, who wanted Baghdadi dead but were unable or unwilling to do it themselves. Perhaps HTS was hoping to win some more favor from the Turks. Whatever the case the HTS information came, indirectly, from people very close to Baghdadi and in October 2019 confirmed that Baghdadi was at a safe house outside the village of Barisha. This was five kilometers from the Turkish border and 25 kilometers north of Idlib city, the provincial capital. It was a remote area but close to a major border crossing. The Barisha safe house compound had been used by ISIL for quite some time and had tunnels dug underneath it and several emergency exits. American planners were able to obtain many of these details and the raiding force was briefed and ready for the operation.

The raid was carried out by over a hundred American special operations troops although fewer than a hundred actually landed, from nine helicopters, after traveling from a base in northwest Iraq. The Turks allowed the helicopters to pass through their airspace and the Americans already had arrangements with the Russians to get safe-passage past Russian air defense systems covering Idlib province. The helicopters received some ground fire as they approached Barisha but heavy machine-guns on the helicopters fired back to eliminate that threat. Once on the ground, the compound was surrounded and Baghdadi was called on to surrender. He refused and the commandos blew a hole in the wall (as the main gate might have explosive traps near it) and quickly entered. Five ISIL gunmen were killed inside the compound plus a few outside it. Baghdadi had put on an explosive vest and fled with several young children to one of the tunnels to try and either escape or simply hide. But the raiders knew of the tunnels and were right behind Baghdadi. Once Baghdadi realized that he detonated his explosives killing himself and the children. His head was intact and that was taken to one of the helicopters that had a portable DNA analysis device on it. The head was confirmed as Baghdadi’s and the rest of his body was collected and later buried at sea, accompanied by appropriate Islamic funeral rites. This was also done with Osama bin Laden’s body, to prevent a burial site from becoming a shrine for like-minded Moslems.

During the raid, the Americans quickly searched the compound for documents and other useful items, some of which was shared with the Turks, Kurds, Iraqis and Russians. Some of that information quickly led to other key ISIL members being identified, located and captured or killed. There was apparently a lot of information on ISIL finances and current organization, which will lead to more action against ISIL finances and overseas operatives.

This information indicated probable successors to Baghdadi, including Sabli. When ISIL announced an unidentified successor several days after Baghdadi’s death. ISIL was secretive about the identity of their new leader because they knew that knowledge could help the Americans track down and kill the successor. Sabli was already being discussed as one of ISIL deputy leaders who was now the boss but confirmation did not come for several months. It was known that Sabli was running the day-to-day ISIL operations as a Baghdadi deputy. But Sabli was a Turk, not an Arab and that was important. For some time it was not known how important.

Many details of how the intel from the Baghdadi compound was obtained, organized and exploited have not been revealed because that would put current operations at risk. It was noted that after the Baghdadi raid was revealed the next day, by the Americans, there was a noticeable disruption in ISIL operations. By the end of the month ISIL confirmed that Baghdadi was indeed dead and named what was described as another member of “Baghdadi’s tribe” to succeed him. This was important because this tribe has a genealogical connection with the original caliphate of a thousand years ago and, if tribal members are appointed caliph, that appointment has more authenticity. Many Baghdadi ISIL associates came from that tribe and that makes it somewhat easier to gather information on Baghdadi successors, something Iraq has already done. Sabli, as a Turkmen, was not part of the Baghdadi tribe and it was though that this misinformation would protect the true identity of the new ISIL leader. At the moment Sabli is being hunted in Syria and possibly Turkey. While Baghdadi would have a hard time, as an Arab, hiding out in Turkey, Sabli would not. There are far fewer ISIL supporters in Turkey than in Syria or Iraq. Sabli’s picture has been widely distributed and that $5 million reward is tempting.

 


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