The ISIS territorial “caliphate” may have crumbled, but the terror group's heart beats on for at least as long as its illusory leader evades capture or death -- and Iraqi intelligence officials insist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 47, is alive and in hiding.
“The latest information is that he is still in the Syrian desert, and could not enter into the Iraqi side because of concerns about evading the security measures on the borders,” Sabah al Namaan, Baghdad’s spokesperson for the counterterrorism agency, told Fox News, stressing that finding the shadowy figure remains of critical importance due to the “symbolic significance” Baghdadi holds in governing the brutal terrorist outfit.
Namaan said efforts are still underway to track down Baghdadi.
“Killing him or arresting him will reveal many secrets about how they have recruited tens of thousands of young men, and it will create a gap in the organization,” he continued. “Hopefully we will reach him very soon, especially now that ISIS has been defeated in its final place in Baghouz, Syria and they have lost all their land in Iraq. Now, we have a real opportunity to catch or kill him.”
Hamid al-Hayes, the head of the al-Anbar Salvation Council – which operates as a collective for tribal militia groups – also echoed in a statement last week that Baghdadi was in Syria, close to the Iraqi border and that he “has shaved his beard and changed a large part of his features [so as] not to be identified and arrested.”
Hisham al Hashimi, a member of the National Reconciliation Commission and a researcher in extremism and terrorism affairs in Iraq, who advises Baghdad and several foreign governments on terrorist activity, said the latest security analysis has pinpointed Baghdadi in “three possible locations.” Two of those are in the arid Syrian wasteland – Tadmur or Homs desert – and the third is just over the border, on the Iraq side.
“All these locations are very wide and very large with around 200 square miles,” Hashimi noted. “He is a specialist at knowing how to survive, using different disguises and only with two people – his brother and his driver – with him.”
He also pointed out that the assumption was that Baghdadi was never in Baghouz, the final Syrian battle zone which fell last month, during the fight but is believed to have “motivated” his fighters prior to the last showdown.
Baghdadi – whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri – remains the world’s most wanted man, with the United States continuing to offer up to $25 million for information leading to his location. While most of his closest aides and confidantes have been slaughtered in the years of intense fighting, the leader is broadly believed to be alive, and still very much in the sights of U.S., SDF and Iraq elite forces.
Earlier this year, Iraqi intelligence officials speaking to Fox News maintained he was lurking in Syrian border towns, often donning non-traditional or “regular” clothes, using a civilian car and making sure all those around him had no mobile phones or electronic devices in order to bypass detection.
Baghdadi -- whose death is constantly rumored but never proven -- is also believed to have survived a coup effort from within his own ranks in January, when several senior fighters attempted to oust him by leading him from his hideout into a firefight with foreign fighters. But he was reportedly whisked away by his security.
A spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, the name given the U.S.-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, have routinely said they “have seen no indications of him or his whereabouts at this time.”
But alive or dead, Baghdadi – who has only made one known public appearance, in 2014 – has managed to elude one of the biggest manhunts in history undertaken by a U.S.-led coalition. But whether or not finding him would do much to shatter the group’s ability to now inspire and launch scattered attacks across the globe, is fodder for debate.
"Finding and bringing the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to justice remains an important task for the international community and continues to be actively pursued by local and international forces in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic,” said Hans-Jakob Schindler, Senior Director of the Counter Extremism Project. “While the capture of al-Baghdadi would present a major blow against ISIS, it is unlikely to result in the dissolution of this terror group."