Earlier this month FARS news reported that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been poisoned along with three of his top aides. I wondered at the time if that was a genuine report or an excuse being offered by ISIS to explain why Baghdadi was retreating to Syria before the battle for Mosul began. But today Fox News is reporting that Baghdadi is still in Mosul:
The secretive leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is believed to be holed up in the terror group’s hub of Mosul, as Iraqi and U.S. forces close in this week ahead of what could be a climactic fight.
Senior Kurdish official Hoshiyar Zebari said his forces had “solid” intelligence al-Baghdadi was somewhere in the Iraqi city of more than a million people and up to 6,000 ISIS fighters. The ISIS leader is likely with the group’s bomb maker Fawzi Ali Nouimeh, Kurdish officials told Reuters.
Taking back Mosul is considered a significant step toward the ultimate destruction of ISIS. The group seized the city just over two years ago. Obviously if Baghdadi is killed or captured in this operation that would be an even more significant victory. However, the death of Baghdadi would not lead to the immediate collapse of ISIS. Back in 2015 it was rumored that Baghdadi had been killed during an airstrike. At the time, an ISIS fighter told Reuters, “Even if he was martyred then it will not affect Islamic State. We will lose a leader but there are a thousand Baghdadis.”
There are believed to be somewhere between 3,000 to 6,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul which is relatively small compared to the tens of thousands of troops now surrounding the city. However, the ISIS troops have had years to prepare defenses including a network of tunnels that allows them to move around unseen. Yesterday the Associated Press published raw video of Peshmerga soldiers clearing an ISIS tunnel:
ISIS is also using the city’s 1.5 million inhabitants as human shields, preventing them from fleeing as Iraqi and Kurdish troops advance. From Reuters:
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters that it was known that civilians were being used as human shields.
“This has been going on for several weeks where we’ve seen civilians being forcibly detained and their movements being prevented where they can’t get out of Mosul. They are being held there against their will,” he told reporters.
Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers are still working to clear ISIS holdouts from the suburbs of Mosul. The battle for the main city has yet to begin.