Column: The End of Baghdadi

By Ashutosh Mishra

London: Among British newspapers, the Guardian seems to have given the most authentic and graphic account of the last moments of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the dreaded Islamic State leader who met his end in a dead-end tunnel in northwestern Syria.

The paper’s Middle East Correspondent, Martin Chulov begins his story as if writing the opening paragraph of a thriller. “Cornered in a dead-end tunnel, with a robot creeping towards him, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had nowhere left to run. Dogs barked in the darkness, a US soldier called out … and then came the thundering explosion that killed the world’s most wanted man – together with three terrified children he was using as human shields.”

The final operation of the US military against the world’s most dreaded and wanted terrorist was no less difficult or challenging than the one in which al Qaeda mastermind, Osama bin Laden had been eliminated by Special Forces inside Pakistan in 2011. The soldiers caught up with the IS leader in a remote hamlet of northwestern Syria, but not before he detonated a suicide vest strapped to his body.

“Baghdadi was a prize that had previously eluded all his pursuers, as well as the best technology the world’s intelligence agencies could muster; the terror tsar had long understood the perils of being a fugitive in a digital age. But the hunt for him began and ended using the more old-fashioned ways of spycraft: another person carrying a secret,” writes Chulov.

Iraqi officials had in mid-September identified a Syrian who had been used to smuggle the wives of two of Baghdadi’s brothers Idlib province via Turkey. The same smuggler had earlier helped move Baghdadi’s children from Iraq. Iraqi intelligence was able to persuade the man and two other persons to offer information about the route he used and the destination of the people travelling with him. The information was promptly passed to the CIA.

By mid-October Operation Kayla Mueller, named after one of Baghdadi’s victims, was in full swing. Iraqi officials continued to provide the US real-time information on the 48-year-old warlord who, slowed down by wounds and stricken with diabetes, was constantly changing locations between eastern Syria and western Iraq before settling in a small pocket of Idlib province in north-west Syria.

With the US and Iraqi officials confident that Baghdadi was indeed in Idlib province, moving between homes in a hamlet named Barisha, not far from the Turkish border, the formidable reach of Washington’s technical capabilities came into play. It helped establish his exact location and the people he was with.

Then the US special forces based in Erbil were given orders to leave for Idlib to undertake what would be their biggest and most dangerous operation in the war against the IS. The attacking forces faced a barrage of gunfire at the site where Baghdadi was hiding. In the fierce clashes that followed, at least nine members of the IS were killed in addition to Baghdadi and two of his wives. The cornered terror lord dropped through a hatch into a tunnel network but the attacking force knew exactly where he was and how to breach the tunnel walls.

Baghdadi ignited the suicide vest strapped to his body killing himself and the three children he was using as a shield. “ It was an end as murderous as his six-year reign, and no less gruesome.”

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