The U.S. operation on Saturday that killed the leader of the Islamic State (IS) terror group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was reportedly carried out in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, home to several terror groups and tens of thousands of foreign fighters.
Syrian Kurdish military officials said the highly clandestine mission took place near a village, which is approximately 5 kilometers away from the Syria-Turkey border.
“Al-Baghdadi, his family and some of his aides were hiding in the village of Barisha in northern Idlib,” a leading commander with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told VOA.
Who Was Baghdadi?
The SDF official, who insisted anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter, added that Kurdish-led forces played “a crucial role” in the U.S. operation and provided “valuable intelligence to U.S. military intelligence agencies.”
Barisha and other surrounding villages are largely under the control of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida, experts said.
“Several groups that have ties with al-Qaida have presence in this area,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamic militant groups in the country.
He noted that Huras al-Din is one of the groups that has operated in the area for a long time.
Huras al-Din emerged in Syria in early 2018 after several factions broke away from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) following al-Nusra’s decision to sever ties with al-Qaida.
The group is largely based in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria, but has a significant presence in nearby provinces.
Kinno told VOA that following the defeat of IS in its last pocket of control in eastern Syria in March 2019, a significant number of its fighters fled to Idlib.
“IS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in Syria disagree ideologically, but now they face a common existential threat from the U.S. and Russia. So I believe al-Baghdadi ended up in Idlib by striking a deal with Huras al-Din and other groups that are active there,” he said.
In March, a Kurdish military official said they had unconfirmed information about the whereabouts of IS leader in Idlib.
Nuri Mahmud, a YPG spokesman, said at the time that after removing IS from its last territory in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, Kurdish forces couldn’t find al-Baghdadi and tentatively concluded that he had fled to Idlib.
The Syrian province of Idlib, home to nearly 3 million people including many displaced people from other parts of Syria, has been a center of contention between Russia and Turkey, two powers that support opposite sides of the Syrian conflict.
In September 2018, Moscow and Ankara reached an agreement that postponed a planned Syrian regime offensive on Idlib and other areas near the Turkish border.
As part of that agreement, Turkey was required to remove all extremist groups from the province, some of which are allied with the al-Qaida terror group.
More than a year into the deal, however, Turkey has allegedly failed to implement that part of its commitment with Russia leaving most of Idlib under the control of a former al-Qaida affiliate called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
For years, Turkey has maintained several military outposts throughout the Syrian province.
U.S. officials also have voiced concerns about the presence of tens of thousands of foreign fighters in Idlib.
“Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaida affiliates in the world right now,” Michael Mulroy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, said during recent remarks at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
IS in Idlib
Another SDF official, who also requested anonymity, said that after losing all Syrian territory it once held, IS began looking for a foothold elsewhere in Syria.
“This operation that targeted al-Baghdadi is yet another evidence that Daesh has many followers in Idlib, including some who fled after their defeat in eastern Syria and a large number of sleeper cells,” the Kurdish official said, using an Arabic acronym for the terror group.
He added that IS leaders have been planning to use Idlib as a new center to carry out attacks in Syria and around the world.