At a time when governments are channeling ever-greater resources into artificial intelligence and dragnet surveillance, it was human intelligence that won the day in the killing of the world’s most wanted man: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The ISIS chief’s death during a pre-dawn raid in northwestern Syria on Sunday was the conclusion of months of painstaking work, begun in Baghdad, according to Husham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based terrorism expert.
In late 2017, Iraqi Major General Atheer al-Maksousi set up a cell whose explicit goal was to capture members of the ISIS chief’s inner circle. The cell came under the direct command of Iraqi intelligence in 2018.
Two of the ISIS unit’s three key targets detonated suicide vests to avert capture, Hashemi told Asia Times.
But a third, Baghdadi’s brother-in-law Mohammed Ali Sajjad al-Zoubai, was captured in February of this year.
Zoubai led the intelligence unit to an isolated area on the Iraqi-Syrian border, near the town of Al-Qaim – one of the last pockets to fall from ISIS control in 2017.
There, he showed them where to dig up the physical clues to Baghdadi’s latest whereabouts. They found two containers, one with hand-written coordinates.
Those coordinates were for the village of Barisha in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, where Baghdadi had relocated in September 2018, when he was believed to have fled a hideout near the isolated Syrian town of Palmyra.
The brother-in-law confirmed that Baghdadi had fled with his family north into Turkey, and then back into Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, where Al Qaeda-linked militants hold sway.
Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence – via the Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurdish intelligence in Erbil and coordinated by the CIA – worked to infiltrate jihadist smuggler networks to confirm where Baghdadi had gone, Hashemi said.
“The smugglers were from Hurras al-Deen [an Al Qaeda-linked group], not ISIS. The Turks also played an important role, as some of Baghdadi’s wives and children stayed in Turkey,” he said.
“They helped the Iraqis narrow down the location to Mount Druze in Idlib, and then the Turks were able to narrow down the exact village.”
That was two weeks ago, Hashemi said, amidst a chaotic US pullout from northeastern Syria. It was only eight days ago that the CIA was able to confirm Baghdadi was in this location.
On Sunday before dawn, a two-hour operation to capture or kill Baghdadi began, resulting in his death by suicide vest when he was finally cornered, along with three children.
HUMINT trumps TECHINT
The death of the ISIS chief in Syria comes nearly a decade after US Special Operations Forces killed the chief of Baghdadi’s forebear: Al Qaeda’s founder and emir Osama bin Laden.
And it offers an embattled US President Donald Trump a chance to compare his record to that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
As soon as the news of the raid on Idlib emerged, the Trump administration began to flood the media with images of the raid that bore stark similarities to the ones released after Bin Laden was killed in May 2011. However, in terms of planning and execution, the two operations were quite different.
In the case of the Baghdadi operation, most technical intelligence – TECHINT – had failed to provide any actionable information and led to a number of false starts, according to a senior US military source who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
But in the case of Neptune Spear, the codename given to the operation to kill bin Laden, it was crucial.
Months before the operation to kill Bin Laden was approved, US intelligence chanced upon the whereabouts of the Al-Qaeda chief’s courier, who claimed Bin Laden was hiding out in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Through TECHINT, the US determined there was a 60% likelihood that Bin Laden was indeed in the Abbottabad compound – giving then-President Obama acceptable odds to justify greenlighting the raid.
In the case of Bin Laden, Washington also had a major geopolitical problem to contend with.
Unlike in Idlib, where Al Qaeda-linked militants hold sway over a chaotic territory out of government control, but where the US also practices deconfliction in the air with Russia and NATO ally Turkey, Pakistan is a sovereign state and a nuclear weapons power.
Inserting US special forces into Abbottabad from Afghanistan, knowing that Pakistani Air Force F-16 jets could easily take them down while they were still in the air, was considerably more complex.
The Obama administration had to wrangle over when it would inform the Pakistani authorities that an operation had been launched to take out bin Laden.
Pakistan would later claim that their best radars were usually aimed against a possible intrusion by Indian fighter jets coming in from the east. However, it has been established that the Pakistanis had equally powerful radars monitoring air space over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, according to Indian intelligence sources.
At that time the US Special Operations Command was headed by Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL who had considerable experience planning complex operations. As a US Navy captain, McRaven authored a PhD thesis establishing a theory for special operations to predict their success or failure mathematically.
While the Middle East and Afghanistan both come under the US Central Command, the US Navy SEALS primarily operate in South Asia, while the US Army Special Operations Force has been tasked in the Middle East.
The US SOF unit Operational Detachment Delta, also popularly known as the Delta Force, was tasked with the raid to get Baghdadi.
The unit worked closely with the Kurds in Northern Iraq before US troops invaded the country after 9/11. Delta Force operators had built a close relationship with the Kurds, training them and helping them lead attacks for months.
The operation to get Baghdadi was launched from Erbil in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq.
Today, that longstanding relationship with the Kurds is again in the spotlight, as the Syrian Kurds work to highlight their intelligence-gathering role.
Senior officials with the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s foot-soldiers in the war against ISIS, told Asia Times they had been working to track down Baghdadi since the fall of the last ISIS stronghold earlier this year.
That was when tens of thousands of ISIS holdouts and their children were captured in the northeastern Syrian pocket of Baghouz and taken into SDF custody.
“We have been tracking [Baghdadi] since May,” said Polat Can, a veteran Kurdish YPG guerrilla commander and senior advisor for the SDF.
The success in locating Baghdadi “was the result of investigations of ISIS prisoners and analysis with sources.”
Asked whether he thought the operation would be the start of a new page with the Americans after their pullout from northeastern Syria, he replied: “No.”
Top SDF officials are now working to seize the moment, however, and emphasize their utility in hunting down top ISIS operatives.
Overnight, SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi announced the killing of a key Baghdadi deputy, located in the Turkish-controlled Syrian border town of Jarablus, an operation he said was conducted in direct coordination with the US military.
Following the previous ops, a senior assistent for al- Bagdadi is called Abu Hesen al Mouhjir was targeted in a village named Ein al Baat near Jaraboul city, the mission was conducted via direct coordination of SDF Intel & US military apart the ongiong ops to hunt ISIS leaders.
— Mazloum Abdî مظلوم عبدي (@MazloumAbdi) October 27, 2019
Marvan Qamishlo, a media officer for the SDF, said the US is still a preferable ally to the Kurds – even after its sudden withdrawal from the border area.
“Russia has a clear goal … the return of the Syrian regime, and the surrender of the SDF. They also have an agreement with Turkey,” he told Asia Times.
While Trump, even before the killing of Baghdadi, proclaimed the war against ISIS over, he appears to have conceded to establishment lawmakers on the utility of maintaining a force in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
“The difference between the US and Russia is … the US has institutions. The American Congress and the Pentagon have good relations with the SDF,” said Qamishlo.
The goal is ostensibly to seize oil supplies, but given the legal limbo of this no-man’s land, the more likely objective is to maintain a foothold in a region US hawks believe must not be permitted to fall under the influence of Iran.