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Experts Doubt Many High-level IS Leaders Are Staying in Mosul


A soldier with Iraq's elite counterterrorism force inspects a tunnel made by Islamic State militants in Bartella, Iraq, Oct. 27, 2016. The town of Bartella in northern Iraq is about 20 kilometers east of Mosul.

A soldier with Iraq's elite counterterrorism force inspects a tunnel made by Islamic State militants in Bartella, Iraq, Oct. 27, 2016. The town of Bartella in northern Iraq is about 20 kilometers east of Mosul.

There is a growing sense that by the time Iraqi forces finish wresting control of the key city of Mosul from Islamic State fighters, few if any of the terror group's top leaders will be there.

The consensus by a variety of current and former intelligence officials comes despite persistent claims in recent weeks from Iraqi officials that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is holed up in a bunker or tunnel somewhere in the city.

In contrast, U.S. military and intelligence officials have been cautious about discussing the IS leader and his whereabouts. Still, they say it is clear some IS leaders have left Mosul and emphasize a string of strikes in recent months have dealt "significant blows" to the terror group.

"The intelligence community has made great strides in developing practices, tradecraft and information to methodically target and eliminate key ISIL figures," a U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group. Tradecraft refers to espionage techniques and technologies.

IS spokesman killed

One of the biggest blows against IS leadership came August 30, when a U.S. airstrike targeted and killed IS spokesman and external operations planner Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, one of several high-value IS members the U.S. had been tracking at the time.

Since then, U.S. and coalition airstrikes have killed several other mid- to high-level IS officials, targeting dozens in Mosul alone.

"You might say the most dangerous job in Iraq right now is to be the military emir of Mosul," U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in prepared remarks before the opening of an anti-IS coalition meeting in Paris Tuesday.

A U.S. Air Force service member uses radio communication at the command and control center inside a coalition air base in Qayyarah, some 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 28, 2016. The U.S. military says Iraqi forces have retaken 40 villages from the Islamic State group near Mosul since a massive operation to drive the militants from the city began last week.

A U.S. Air Force service member uses radio communication at the command and control center inside a coalition air base in Qayyarah, some 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 28, 2016. The U.S. military says Iraqi forces have retaken 40 villages from the Islamic State group near Mosul since a massive operation to drive the militants from the city began last week.

"Our hope and our belief is that it has had an effect on their ability to command and control their troops," a defense official told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But the official added that many of the IS leaders being targeted are tactical commanders who would be responsible for staying in the city to direct its defense.

Additionally, former intelligence analysts argue that the IS terror group's history would suggest top officials, such as Baghdadi, will not unnecessarily put themselves in harm's way.

"If you look at ISIS, if you look at al-Qaida, AQI, the predecessor organization — whenever there's a huge battle, usually the major leader, like [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi, they're never around," former CIA analyst Aki Peritz said.

"The leaders are not in the martyrdom business," said Peritz, now a senior fellow at George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. "They hold on to their lives much more dearly than they do [the lives] of their colleagues."

Not consistent with messaging

Officials and analysts add keeping key, high-level leaders in a place like Mosul, the self-declared caliphate's Iraqi capital, would also be inconsistent with the terror group's messaging, which has been urging followers not to come to Iraq and Syria but to instead take up arms wherever they are.

"They understand the inevitability that their caliphate is going to fall," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "They've moved on to being an insurgency or a terrorist group."

An Iraqi Federal Police vehicle passes through a checkpoint in Qayyarah, 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 26, 2016. Islamic State militants have been going door to door in farming communities south of Mosul, ordering people at gunpoint to follow them north into the city and apparently using them as human shields as they retreat from Iraqi forces.

An Iraqi Federal Police vehicle passes through a checkpoint in Qayyarah, 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 26, 2016. Islamic State militants have been going door to door in farming communities south of Mosul, ordering people at gunpoint to follow them north into the city and apparently using them as human shields as they retreat from Iraqi forces.

Losing Baghdadi, the group's most recognizable and charismatic figure, as Mosul falls could hurt IS over the long term, leaving the remnants of the group in Iraq and Syria, as well as its affiliates, without a central figure around which to rally.

For now, though, it is likely that rumors that Baghdadi is hiding in Mosul will endure, if only for Iraqi propaganda purposes.

"People who have lost family members — fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers — to the depredations of Islamic State, they want to go after them. They want vengeance or justice," Peritz said. "If you know a great evil, a person that's responsible for so much suffering in your country, is in this one city, it might actually psych up your troops to go after him."

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