Bummer. The so-called “caliph” of the so-called Islamic State might not be at so-called room temperature after all. A leading Kurdish intelligence official told Reuters that they are certain Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not been killed — and isn’t in the so-called capital of Raqqa either. That conflicts with a number of reports that ISIS had announced Baghdadi’s death in Tal Afar last week:
A top Kurdish counter-terrorism 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 Raqqa, 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. …
“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 Raqqa as well.”
So where is Baghdadi, if he’s still alive? Directing the fight to keep his capital? No, not really, Talabany says; he’s somewhere south of Raqqa and devising a new plan to return ISIS to its al-Qaeda in Iraq roots. They will take to the mountains and fight as an insurgency rather than hold territory, Talabany predicts, hoping to outlast the coalition arrayed against it in eastern Syria and western Iraq. No one has heard from Baghdadi in a while, but then again, Baghdadi communiqués were a pretty rare event, too. He managed to keep from getting killed by keeping his head down. As Talabany points out, Baghdadi was an expert at that even before declaring the caliphate with himself as global leader of all Muslims.
That does pose some other questions, however. For one, at least one source claims that Baghdadi deputy Iyad al-Obaidi in Hawija has declared himself the new caliph. It’s the same source that first reported the alleged ISIS announcement in Tal Afar, but others — such as Fortune’s Simon Mabon — noted that infighting had recently erupted among ISIS factions, which certainly suggests a vacuum of leadership. Even if Baghdadi is still alive, he may be so cut off from the ISIS network that effectively it amounts to the same thing as a leadership vacuum resulting from his death.
The anti-ISIS coalition wants to cut off another organizing point in Iraq next, even while preparing for the liberation of Raqqa. The city of Tal Afar remains in ISIS hands, but not for very much longer, according to Al-Arabiya News:
Due to the city’s complex population structure, Iraqi PM Haider Abadi will task joint forces to break into the city. Counterterrorism fighters, amid leaks of the involvement of 5,000 from the Abbas brigade militia, will lead the joint force.
The participation of the militia, according to parliamentary sources, is in response to the desire of the religious authority to put a moderate force in the fighting as well as resolve the dispute between the Popular Mobilization Forces and Abadi on the invasion of Tal Afar by other militias, which has long raised fears of possible violations against civilians.
In other words, Abadi wants to minimize the number of Shi’ite forces — and possibly Kurdish as well — in the assault on a primarily Sunni city. Whether that can be done successfully remains to be seen, but Tal Afar should be an easier goal than Mosul, which was much larger and more strategic for ISIS. By now, with Mosul gone, the need to protect the line of communication through Tal Afar is all but over. If reports of infighting in Tal Afar between ISIS factions is accurate, it might be a very propitious time to launch that new offensive, which Al-Arabiya says will come in the next two weeks. After that, the next obvious goal is Sinjar, where ISIS’ genocidal ambitions first came to the world’s attention. ISIS won’t have much of a toehold left after that, assuming the Iraqi military can succeed without a major boost from non-Sunni militias.
If Tal Afar falls along with Raqqa, it might not matter any longer whether Baghdadi’s alive or not. His value to the ISIS terrorist army had shifted from strategist to symbol three years ago — a symbol of divine blessing on their enterprise to the fanatics they needed to recruit to hold territory. Not only will that symbolic value be destroyed, but Baghdadi’s reputation as a strategist will be seriously tarnished among radical Islamists as well. The remaining leadership of ISIS might decide that it’s time to make a change themselves, rather than wait for the coalition to decapitate the “caliphate,” if in fact it has not already done so.