So I’m seeing an increasing amount of chatter on the Twitter that none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself has been trapped in Mosul and is perhaps not long for this world. And while I agree that this would be a hilarious rebuttal to Donald Trump’s barely coherent debate rant about how come we don’t sneak attack Mosul or whatever, all the good ISIS guys have already fled the city because we told them the attack was coming, I think the only appropriate time to say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in Mosul will be when he’s either dead or in custody–and even then you should get a second opinion.
As far as I can tell, most of the chatter stems from one report by a Kurdish commander to Reuters earlier this week, a report that Reuters didn’t think credible enough to get more than a very short mention in a story about the looming humanitarian crisis caused by the operation:
On Tuesday attacking forces entered another phase, Zebari said. “It won’t be a spectacular attack on Mosul itself. It will be very cautious. It is a high-risk operation for everybody.”
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and explosives expert Fawzi Ali Nouimeh were both in the city, according to what Zebari described as “solid” intelligence reports.
As the kids say, “big, if true.” But based on the amount of attention Reuters didn’t lavish upon that tantalizing tidbit of information, you have to conclude that they didn’t really think it was true. Or at least that they had no way of corroborating it. Then there’s this Voice of America report, which adds a second source to the one Reuters had but still seems pretty uncorroborated to me. There are also reports that Baghdadi was in Mosul but has either fled or is about to flee. And, hey, maybe.
There are even reports that Baghdadi and his guards have had to fend off some kind of recent coup attempt against the “caliph,” but these seem to be coming out of the less reputable corners of the internet, and they may be conflating Baghdadi’s supposed presence in Mosul with this report, again from Reuters, about what seems to have been some genuine attempted shenanigans last week:
Islamic State has crushed a rebellion plot in Mosul, led by one of the group’s commanders who aimed to switch sides and help deliver the caliphate’s Iraqi capital to government forces, residents and Iraqi security officials said.
Islamic State (IS) executed 58 people suspected of taking part in the plot after it was uncovered last week. Residents, who spoke to Reuters from some of the few locations in the city that have phone service, said the plotters were killed by drowning and their bodies were buried in a mass grave in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city.
Among them was a local aide of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who led the plotters, according to matching accounts given by five residents, by Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on IS affairs that advises the government in Baghdad and by colonel Ahmed al-Taie, from Mosul’s Nineveh province Operation Command’s military intelligence.
This report seems realistic enough–tensions have to be running high in Mosul after all, and you have to believe there are ISIS fighters in the city who would happily hand the keys back over to the Iraqi army if it meant not dying in the upcoming fight. But the more recent news about Baghdadi’s whereabouts is a lot sketchier. On the one hand, there’s no real evidence that he’s in Mosul. On the other hand, there’s no real evidence that he’s anywhere, and he’s got to be somewhere, right? Unless he’s nowhere, which would mean he’s already dead, or everywhere, in which case it’s probably a bad idea to pick a fight with him. Assuming Baghdadi does have to be somewhere, he’s running out of somewheres where he might be, and that’s why you can’t just dismiss the sketchy reports that he’s in Mosul out of hand. Raqqa would seem to be a more logical place for Baghdadi to be hanging his hat, and somewhere along the sparse Syria-Iraq border probably makes even more sense than Raqqa, but who knows?
Anyway, like I said, it’s better to withhold judgment on reports like this until there’s proof, as in a body, either living or dead. But it is an interesting possibility.