Getting Baghdadi

Unlike in Abbottabad, where a swift operation ended in 20 minutes, it took at least four hours to get Baghdadi in Barisha, writes Iftikhar Gilani

Getting Baghdadi
Residents of the garrison town of Abbottabad were shocked to discover on May 2, 2011, that they had been hosting the world’s most wanted man, Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Similar was the experience of the inhabitants of a sleepy village of Barisha, in Idlib province of northwestern Syria.

The sound of gun fire and helicopters hovering over the village in the intervening night between October 27 and 28 had kept its 3,000 inhabitants behind closed doors. The next morning they learnt that a newly built house in the outskirts, near some Byzantine ruins, was the hideout of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State terror group. Another striking similarity between the Abbottabad and Barisha raids is that despite a strenuous search to locate these two wanted men in mountains and deserts, they were found at the end dwelling in normal civilian localities.

For Turkey, which was basking in the glory of a military and diplomatic victory after taking over a large swath of northern Syria on the east of Euphrates River, from the US-backed Kurd YPG/PKK militant groups, the killing of Bagdadi was a dampener. Like Pakistan, their diplomats, henceforth, will be quizzed on the presence of Bagdadi in the area, controlled by Turk-backed forces. Interestingly, at a distance from the village of Barisha, in Harim district is a Turk military picket, while on the other end, in the nearby Aala mountains is a Russian observatory post.
The State Department says Baghdadi’s remains have been disposed of at sea, and there are no plans to share footage of his death

Unlike Abbottabad, where the CIA-led Operation Neptune Spear was swift and easy, the operation in Barisha took at least four hours. The helicopters took off from Erbil, covering a distance of almost 700 kilometers. The US had informed Turkey, Iraq and Russia that its planes were using the airspace. President Trump said US military helicopters flew “very low” over the territory controlled by Russian and Syrian forces before landing on Baghdadi’s compound. Intensive bombings had destroyed three buildings and damaged the tents around the houses. Some craters created by the bombardments were also seen among olive trees. In another strike in the same area, State Department officials have confirmed that the ISIS or Daesh spokesman Abu al Hassan al Muhajir was also killed. He was believed to be a potential successor to the terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

The State Department also says Baghdadi’s remains have been disposed of at sea, and there are no plans to share footage of his death.

Ironically, the area on the ground is largely controlled by an alliance of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and National Liberation Front, an anti-Daesh or ISIS group. In the past, the group has executed several people in the region on suspicion of having affiliations with the ISIS. Turkish officials say Baghdadi could not have been there for a long time as the area was dotted with his enemies. But US officials say they had been tracking the village for over 80 days. Quoting a military source, Asia Times reported that in the case of the Baghdadi operation, most technical intelligence – TECHINT – had failed to provide any actionable information and led to a number of false starts. It was the same in Bin Laden’s case, where technical intelligence failed to provide any clue for years.

Turkey has described killing of the Daesh chief “a significant achievement.” Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin was at pains to contradict western media claims that the Kurd militant group PYG/PKK deserved credit for the accomplishment. “We see some efforts to show deference to the YPG/PKK terror group in Syria in relation to [the killing]. Like, ‘They did some intelligence-sharing and supported [the operation]’,” Kalin said, decrying such efforts to legitimize YPG/PKK terrorists. “Our military and intelligence units were in contact with their American counterparts on this issue and they coordinated. Especially...the night when the operation was conducted, we can say there was intense diplomacy between our military authorities,” said Kalin.

Sources here said that Bagdadi’s killing became possible after Turkish police had detained Ismael al-Ethawi, a key aide of the Daesh chief. He was held by Turkish police in the northwestern Sakarya province in an anti-terror operation on February 8, 2018, and handed to Iraqi authorities. He had reportedly entered Turkey through a PKK-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG) controlled area in Syria and was extradited to Iraq on February 14 after being interrogated by Turkish intelligence.

The key aide to the Daesh leader was also interrogated by Iraqi intelligence and the CIA in Iraq, which enabled a series of critical operations targeting the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. He provided vital information to US authorities to determine the locations where top Daesh figures would meet with al-Baghdadi. He also provided the secret communication codes used by Daesh terrorists to access the group’s bank accounts and acted as a mediator between the group and local tribes. Some 39 senior Daesh terrorists were killed in Syria’s Deir el-Zour through the information Ethawi provided. “They gave us all the locations where they were meeting with al-Baghdadi inside Syria, and we decided to coordinate with the CIA to deploy more sources inside these areas,” an Iraqi official told media.

There are some attempts in Russia to cast doubts at President Trump’s claims. Russian state-operated news agency, RIA, quoted Major-General Igor Konashenkov saying: “The Russian Ministry of Defence does not have reliable information on the operation by US servicemen...on yet another ‘elimination’ of former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” Trump was also mocked by Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the upper house of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee. He told Interfax news agency: “Last respects have been paid to al-Baghdadi at least five times in the past. (Also) countering terrorism is a much more difficult task than the physical destruction of its leaders, even the most irreconcilable.”

The writer is a journalist based in Turkey