Homeland Security

U.S. Official: ISIS Leader in 'Deep, Deep Hiding'

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WASHINGTON — An Obama administration official today declared that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is “in deep, deep hiding,” and “we also know he hides with slaves and all sorts of terrible things.”

Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk appeared at the beginning of the daily briefing at the White House to give an update on the status of operations.

Sirte, Libya, a “strategic location on the Mediterranean,” he said, “is no longer accessible to ISIL terrorists.”

“And we’ll of course continue to support the Government of National Accord as pursues ISIL throughout the country. In Raqqa, Raqqa remains ISIL’s administrative capital and is under more pressure now than ever before. Forces partnered with our coalition have now entirely severed routes between Raqqa and ISIL locations in Iraq, and the Syrian democratic forces, a coalition of local Arabs and Kurds are steadily advancing on Raqqa, with the aim to isolate or really strangulate,” he added.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian forces, has cleared nearly 450 square miles north of Raqqa since beginning the operation a month ago.

In the second month of the Mosul campaign, McGurk said, “we’ve seen a very steady and delivered advance along all axis against ISIL terrorists, which are using the civilian population in Mosul as human shields.”

“Throughout this campaign, which began just a couple months ago now, we’ve already conducted over 500 airstrikes, destroyed about 100 car bombs, 100 tunnels, 300 bunkers and this is ongoing every single day. We’re often asked how long this is going to take, and the answer is, in Mosul, it will take as long as it takes,” he said, noting that past ops against ISIS such as the liberation of Kobane have taken around six months.

“Eventually they reach a culmination point, they simply cannot resupply, they run out of suicide bombers and they culminate. And in Mosul, we don’t know when that will come. It could come very soon, it could come a couple months from now, but our momentum will be sustained and we’ll provide — provide relentless pressure on the enemy throughout Mosul.”

McGurk stressed that Baghdadi has not been seen on video “in well over a year,” and though he issued an audio statement last month “issuing audiotapes deep in hiding is not really the sign of a competent leader, particularly in today’s media age.”

“So eventually we will find and eliminate him as well, but the leadership ranks continued to diminish,” he added. “…The number of battle-ready fighters inside Iraq and Syria is now at its lowest point that it’s ever been. We estimate about 12,000 to 15,000, and ISIL is unable to replenish its ranks.”

On reports last week that ISIS leaders had met to choose a successor to Baghdadi — who has previously encouraged followers to think about succession to ensure a smooth transition in the event of the current leader’s death — McGurk said the self-proclaimed caliph is “a total fraud” who “claims to have this unique lineage that makes him the caliph.”

“I definitely think that when we do eliminate Baghdadi, it’ll make a significant difference. I also think it is significant that he tried to be a kind of new type of terrorist leader, giving public speeches, going to the Grand Mosque and giving this sermon in the summer of 2014,” McGurk continued. “And he is now in deep, deep hiding. And we had not heard from him until he issued this audiotape a couple months ago. And it was a very defensive message.”

“It basically said for all of the fighters in Mosul, stay and fight to the death. But all the indications we’re getting is that many did not take that message well, because where is Baghdadi? He is somewhere in hiding. And we also know he hides with slaves and all sorts of terrible things. I mean, this guy is one of the most despicable we’ve ever seen.”

McGurk vowed “we’re doing all we can to find and eliminate him.”

“As I mentioned, all of his deputies — nearly all of his deputies have been eliminated. And it’s a matter of time before we find him,” the envoy said.

An ISIS e-book issued soon after the caliphate was declared claimed al-Baghdadi hides in plain sight by dressing like a regular mujahid in public and is paranoid about carrying a cell phone or using electronic communications.

He is “always cautiously on the move for security reasons… hiding is comfortably possible compared to Osama bin Laden who had less security, more spies against him and less places to hide,” the book said. “Unlike the medieval times when a king was safe in a guarded castle, leaders today cannot have one central location. Khalifah Ibrahim is always on the move in a convoy of cars, with loyal bodyguards who he knows since the American invasion in the mid 2000s. The secret is not to have too much cars which will give the impression (to local people and even drones) that an important person is in one of the cars. But not to have too less cars either, in case of ambush.”