Is ISIS Leader Alive or Dead? Top Official Says He Has Not Seen Baghdadi Since Last Summer
One of Islamic State militant group (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's closest aides has admitted to an Iraqi court that he has not seen the elusive jihadi chief since last summer, prompting further speculation about his fate.
Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council reportedly issued Wednesday the official confession of a top ISIS official, who is believed to have worked in the upper echelons of the jihadi group's administration. Council spokesman Judge Abdul Sattar Bayrakdar issued a statement explaining that "the Central Investigation Court has held filed the confessions of one accused of belonging to the ISIS terrorist organization calling for the terrorist, revealing the existence of ongoing meetings with the leader of the organization Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," a number of news outlets reported, including Arabi 21, whose article was later shared by Bayrakdar himself.
"The accused confirmed that the last meeting between them was in July last year, while he explained that he is a member of the Supervisory General Committee of the so-called Islamic state after its division into five emirates, Iraq, Sham [or the Levant], Africa, Europe and the Arabian Gulf," the statement continued.
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An Iraqi man holds printed profiles of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released by Iraqi authorities on February 6, 2018. Despite the U.S., Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria all hunting the jihadi leader, his fate remains officially unknown. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Bayrakdar went on to say that the suspect claimed to hold a doctorate in Islamic law and that he had been held in Camp Bucca, a U.S. detainment camp where Baghdadi was once held—along with a number of other disaffected Sunni Muslims—a year after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The statement said the accused was captured in a joint operation with Turkish security forces and later handed over to Iraq.
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While the suspect was not named in the statement, the Iraqi Interior Ministry's Falcons Intelligence Cell announced on February 14 that ISIS supervisory committee member Ismail Alwan Salman al-Ithawi had been captured as he attempted to enter Turkey through Syria, and was later extradited to Iraq. The cell shared two images purported to be of Ithawi.
Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher in terrorism and a member of the Network for Iraqi Facilitators, tweeted Wednesday that the suspect in Bayrakdar's statement and Ithawi were one and the same.
Baghdadi joined what was known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, later known as the Islamic State of Iraq, sometime after his release of U.S. captivity and went on to lead the group after its leader's death, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi in 2010. Taking advantage of a 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he spread his group into the neighboring country and rebranded it as ISIS. In 2014, Baghdadi made his first and last known public appearance as head of ISIS when he declared a global caliphate from the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul.
That year, ISIS claimed half of Iraq and Syria, but the group has since been mostly defeated by U.S.-led coalition and local campaigns supported by Iran and Russia. As some 90 to 99 percent of the group's territory was lost, the militants have largely gone underground with only shrinking pockets of territory in eastern Syria and a quickly collapsing hold on the southern outskirts of Damascus remaining.
With little left of his self-proclaimed caliphate, Baghdadi's absence has made him the subject of various rumors about his whereabouts and fate. Russia said last June that it believed it killed him in a May airstrike. Not long after, a top Iranian official also said he was dead, while two pro-Syrian opposition activist groups were split. The voice of a man ISIS claimed to be Baghdadi appeared in a recording released in September, but the claim has not been independently verified.
The U.S. has not provided any updates, while some officials speculated in Februaryhe was injured and hiding in Syria's eastern desert region, a view echoed by a top Iraqi official.