- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2019

With the Islamic State’s once-extensive caliphate now in ruins, the hunt is now on for the terror group’s elusive leader — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Amid fears Islamic State will return to its roots as a terrorist guerrilla operation, the reclusive Islamic State founder has not been seen publicly since his he proclaimed the founding of the caliphate from the Grand Nuri Mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, at a time when Mosul, Kirkuk and a string of cities in Iraq and Syria were in the terror group’s control.

An August 2018 audio purportedly by al-Baghdadi, seeming to acknowledge the territorial losses in Syria and Iraq while urging Islamic State militants around the world to keep up the fight, is the last known communication by the terror leader.

With Islamic State’s final bastions in eastern Syria falling to U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish forces over the weekend, the hunt for al-Baghdadi is certain to accelerate.

“He is someone who has a lot of blood on his hands, [and for] all that needs to be held accountable,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

But there are no signs — in public at least — that the U.S. and its allies are zeroing in on their quarry.

“No, we do not know where he is, [but] finding the top leadership of ISIS is always a top priority,” U.S. special representative to Syria James Jeffrey told reporters Monday. The veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Iraq said the Trump administration remains committed to the eradication of the entire terrorist organization — and to bringing its leaders to justice.

But the search could get more challenging as the Trump White House pursues plans to withdraw the bulk of the 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria, leaving just a small 400- to 600-man peacekeeping force for what Mr. Jeffery called “clearing operations and stabilization operations.”

Kurdish and Arab militias, backed by American and allied air power, made their final sweep through the last pockets of Islamic State resistance in the Syrian village of Baghouz on Saturday — the culmination of several weeks of intense fighting.

But even victory comes with complications — on Monday, militia commanders appealed for the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute thousands of captured foreign Islamic State fighters whose home countries so far have refused to take them back.

“We don’t have other options,” Kurdish diplomat Abdulkerim Umer told The Associated Press on Monday. “We can’t put up with this burden alone,” he added.

There are as many as 7,000 Islamic State detainees in custody in Syria and Iraq, Mr. Jeffrey said Monday.

As his fighters await their fate, al-Baghdadi has managed to evade his pursuers. Iraqi National Security Service officials insist al-Baghdadi is still somewhere in Syria despite making several unsuccessful attempts to escape to Iraq, according to reports in Arab news outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

Others suggest the terror leader is likely hiding in Syria’s Badia desert, with his older brother Jumaa, driver and bodyguard Abdullatif al-Jubury and his courier Saud al-Kurdi, Islamic State analyst Hisham al-Hashemi told France 24 earlier this week. The Badia Desert is where al-Baghdadi’s son, Hudhayfa al-Badri, was killed in a Russian missile strike.

But coalition officials have repeatedly dismissed those reports.

“We do not think he is in Syria,” Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the U.S.-allied Syrian Defense Forces, told Agence France Presse this week.

Some analysts claim the terror leader is now little more than a figurehead for the terror group he spawned, and his capture would do little to curb the Islamic State’s efforts to reestablish itself in the Middle East and beyond.

“On one level, of course it does matter,” said Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser on the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. Institute for Peace. But, she added, “we should not put too much importance on the figure of Baghdadi.”

Even with its caliphate in shambles and many of their fighters dead or in prison, the Islamic State’s “importance goes far beyond any individual,” said Ms. Yacoubian. The group “continues to hold the capacity to inspire” terrorism, regardless of who is at the helm, she said.

Mr. Joscelyn acknowledged that eliminating al-Baghdadi would not cripple Islamic State, but it could hamper the group’s efforts to rebuild its image and attract new recruits.

“It is never sufficient to [just] take out the top leader, but it is necessary … to disrupt the chain of command,” he said. “Imagine a scenario where they have a comeback and he is at the head of it.”

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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