Long before the fall of his physical empire, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, was hunkered down with his top command and most loyal fighters, most likely in the impenetrable Syrian desert region known as the Badia.

“Certainly he is still alive, he did not participate in any battle and was not close to any battlefield,” said Hisham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based terrorism expert.

“The ISIS security detail that guards Baghdadi knows that keeping the Caliph alive is more important than maintaining the Caliphate,” he told Asia Times.

While the 47-year-old is known to have diabetes, he is not suffering from any major wounds, according to Hashemi, who cites the confessions of an individual who saw Baghdadi near the Syrian town of Marashidah on the east bank of the Euphrates in August 2018.

Marashidah was the second-to-last Syrian town to fall from ISIS control, seized by US-backed Kurdish forces in January. The last sliver of territory, Baghouz, was overrun one week ago – ending the physical caliphate, which at its height ruled over some 8 million people.

By then, Baghdadi – the man with US$25 million US bounty on his head – was long gone, his refuge years in the making.

Where is Baghdadi

Baghdadi’s current location can be whittled down to only three places, two of them in the vast Syrian desert, according to Hashemi. He singled out the vast Badia region outside Palmyra, then the adjacent desert closer to Homs.

A third, lesser possibility is that the caliph has fled to friendly territory in his native Iraq – specifically the town of Rawa, which juts out into the Euphrates River, and which was the last to fall to government forces in November 2017. CNN reported in February, citing US intelligence, that around 1,000 ISIS members had relocated to Iraq with as much as $200 million in cash.

But a Syrian source with a network of informants across the country tells Asia Times that all information points to Baghdadi taking refuge in the Badia.

“Four years ago, the organization took precautionary measures and prepared the area east of Palmyra,” he said on condition of anonymity. “This is a mountainous, high elevation area with extreme temperatures. They were getting this area ready from 2014, carving out caves in the mountains.”

A view from inside an Al-Qaeda hideout in the mountainous barrens of Arsal on the Lebanese-Syrian border, where the jihadist group hid out for years before being routed by Hezbollah in July 2017. Photo: Ratib Al Safadi/Anadolu Agency

It was in 2014 that the United States, alarmed by the rapid territorial gains of the extremist group across Iraq and Syria, launched a global military coalition with the stated aim of degrading and defeating ISIS.

The leadership of the caliphate, which at that point was ruling an area home to 8 million people, began making contingency plans.

Syrian military tanks in the east of Homs province after they retook the area from Islamic State group fighters on March 9, 2015. Photo: AFP

“In 2015 they brought a lot of weapons [to the Badia], which they’d gotten from Mosul. And they secured the route from Baghouz. All the high commanders took weapons and money to this area, because it’s impossible to conquer – you can’t seize it with warplanes and you can’t seize it with an army. There aren’t even roads and there are no inhabitants. Just some bedouins, but no approaches anywhere near the mountains,” the Syrian source said.  

It is believed there are no less than 1,000 loyalists holed up with Baghdadi in the Badia, though the number could be as high as the low thousands. The source said it was possible ISIS had prepared an alternative escape, “but this is the most secure for them”.

Sofia Amara, an investigative journalist whose book, “Baghdadi, caliph of terror”, was published late last year in French, and who has traveled from Camp Bucca in Iraq (where Baghdadi was imprisoned by the American military) to the refuge of his ex-wife in Lebanon, also believes the leadership is in the Badia.

“What we know from multiple sources – the intelligence services in Iraq, experts in Baghdad, and also confirmed by Kurdish sources – is that the cabinet of ISIS was able to escape, and is apparently in the Badia of Homs province,” she told Asia Times.

While this region is technically within the territory controlled by the Syrian military and its allies the Russians and Hezbollah, it is nearly impenetrable.

“The Badia is extremely difficult to control, because it is a desert. The militants just dig tunnels, make their hideout, and put a piece of material on top. From above, it seems that it is just desert, but they are underneath, and it is very hard to find them,” Amara said.

The description bears similarities to the Arsal barrens between Lebanon and Syria, which for years of the civil war provided a refuge for Syrian militant factions, who holed up in camouflaged caves in the jagged terrain. The area in July 2017 fell under Hezbollah control, which took journalists on a tour to demonstrate the hostility of a sliver of that area, which is about 200 square kilometers. The Badia is another scale entirely – 90,000 square kilometers.

Remaining

Baghdadi’s first and only public appearance was in the Iraqi city of Mosul in July 2014, when he proclaimed himself caliph before an unsuspecting audience who had gathered at the historic Nuri mosque for regular Friday prayers.

A woman whose husband was present that day told the investigative journalist Amara that Internet and phone services had been cut in the city that morning, while Baghdadi’s armed guards were dispersed throughout the mosque, ensuring no one challenged the proclamation.

A pile of aid composed of bread and water bottles in the desert, left for civilians outside Baghouz, the last holdout of ISIS in Syria. Photo taken on March 9, 2019. Photo: AFP/Bulent Kilic

The self-styled caliph was last heard in August 2018, in an audio recording titled ‘Give Good Tidings to the Patient’. In it, he encouraged his supporters to ignore territorial losses and to carry out attacks wherever they may find themselves. He already seemed to be looking beyond the physical caliphate, making special calls for movements to rise up in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as in the West.

Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al-Badri Al-Samarrai, is no stranger to hunkering down. As the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of the Islamic State in Iraq, and then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he has been blacklisted by the UN Security Council for the past decade.

According to Hashemi, Baghdadi has long used a discreet network to deliver necessary communications to his top deputies.

“He has couriers known as the Post of the Emirate, most often drawn from the women of his family.” These women deliver messages orally or in handwritten form, in a code even they are not privy to. They do not carry anything electronic on their person, Hashemi said.

“Al-Qaeda has always used couriers to pass messages safely, avoiding modern devices,” added Amara, who agreed that women had likely taken on this critical role for ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh. 

“Daesh is the first group in jihadist history in which we see women playing such an important role,” she said. “This was not the case under Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda.” 

At the height of his territorial control, Baghdadi was living with his three wives, three to four sex slaves, and an entourage of bodyguards, according to Amara, who interviewed one of those Yazidi girls who was held captive with him and the American hostage Kayla Mueller before escaping.

The entire camp was later constantly on the move, chased by coalition air raids, one of which ISIS said killed Mueller in February 2015. “In this situation he’s in today … being chased by the entire planet, I doubt he’s taking the risk of having his wives with him,” Amara said. 

Women and children evacuated from the Islamic State group’s holdout of Baghouz arrive at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on March 6, 2019. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman

It could be a long time before Baghdadi takes the risk of communicating any statement, the Syrian source and Amara said. When that does happen, however, the group is likely to emphasize the big picture.

“There was a time when the Islamic State of Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, had been shattered by the sahwat in Iraq,” Amara said, referring to a US-backed tribal movement, known in English as the Awakening.

“They had to go into the desert, and from there they regained their strength from 2013,” said Amara. “I see them saying that they are back in the desert, and the fight is not over.”

Over the past several weeks, as tens of thousands of ISIS supporters were forced to surrender from the last redoubt of the caliphate, their hardened ideology was apparent.

“The caliphate will not end, because it has been ingrained in the hearts and brains of the newborns and the little ones,” one 60-year-old woman told AFP. Another said the women had only left because they were a “heavy burden” on the men. She said they were waiting for the next conquest.