U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has now retreated from the battlefield in Mosul to hide out in the desert, focusing on his own survival. He has left operational commanders and diehard followers behind to continue the fight.

  • Battle for Mosul represents largest conflict in Iraq since 2003.
  • al-Baghdadi an elusive target, constantly moving, fleeing the combat zones.
  • 100,000 Iraqi soldiers engaged in battle for Mosul.
  • More than half of the 6,000 jihadists left to defend the city have been killed.
  • Coalition saying victory is now inevitable, “the game is up”.

While it is impossible to confirm the location of the reclusive self-declared “ruler of all Muslims”, US and Iraqi intelligence say that the lack of communication from leadership suggests that he has abandoned the city due to loss of territory – a territory that represented by far the largest population centre the group has ever held.

Al-Baghdadi has proven to be an elusive target, moving constantly and using untraceable communication. It is believed that he hides amongst sympathetic citizens in desert villages, rather than on the front line with fighters in urban areas facing combat.

Flushed out & quiet

At the height of the Islamic State’s influence, they ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria to Baghdad in Iraq, but 5 months ago US-backed Iraqi forces began their offensive to recapture Mosul in the biggest battle since the US-led invasion of 2003. Progress has been slow, partly due to the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire.

Intelligence sources cite a rapid drop in Islamic State social media postings as evidence that al-Baghdadi and his circle are becoming increasingly isolated. Baghdadi himself has not surfaced since early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he called on his followers to fight the “unbelievers” and “make their blood flow as rivers.”

Since that recorded speech, ISIS broadcasts do not mention Mosul, but instead other attacks carried out across Iraq and Syria. There was no comment released after the coalition victory in the eastern part of the city this January.

Their presence on Telegram, the social media network that had become ISIS’s main platform for announcements and speeches, has dwindled. Activity on Twitter has fallen by 45 percent since 2014 and 360,000 of the groups Twitter accounts have been suspended so far with new ones usually shut down within a couple of days.

A losing fight 

US-backed Iraqi forces are now closing in on the area around Mosul’s Great Mosque; the site where al-Baghdadi declared himself the ruler of all Muslims, proclaiming his caliphate. This is likely to be a very symbolic victory for the coalition.

“The game is up,” U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Matthew Isler told Reuters at the Qayyara West Airfield south of Mosul.

Some of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters are trying to leave the city, with those left behind mostly Iraqi. Although they are putting up a “very hard fight”, they are no longer an integrated force as coalition air strikes are systematically taking out command centres and weapons caches.

“They have lost this fight and what you’re seeing is a delaying action,” he said.

The end of the “caliphate”

While the loss of Mosul would effectively represent the end of the rule of ISIS in Iraq, officials are preparing for the terror group to go underground and fight an insurgency.

The capture of Raqqa in Syria, the capital of the “caliphate” would end the state structure, possibly later this year. While Raqqa is much smaller than Mosul, it has been harder to tackle ISIS in Syria compared to Iraq because most of the group’s Syrian enemies have been fighting in their own civil war since 2011.

Nevertheless, Islamic State has faced setbacks in Syria over the past year against three main foes: U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab militias, the Russian-backed Syrian army, and mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels backed by Turkey.

“The inevitability of their destruction just becomes really a matter of time,” said Major General Rupert Jones, deputy commander for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

Getting al-Baghdadi

The US government has a joint task force in place to track down Baghdadi, including special operations forces, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies as well as spy satellites of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

But the fugitive has seeming learned lessons from the capture and killing of Osama bin Ladin and will rely on multiple couriers, not just one like the al Qaeda founder. He also switches cars between trips to avoid drone strikes.

A publicly appointed successor has not been named, but Iyad al-Obaidi, also known as Fadel Haifa, a security officer under former dictator Saddam Hussein, is known to be the de facto deputy, according to Iraqi intelligence sources.

At least 40 leading members of the group have been targeted and killed by air strikes, but the insurgency is still likely to continue even after Baghdadi is captured or killed and Mosul is taken, as the ideology remains strong. “There will be other commanders rising because the structure of the organization remains,” said Fadhil Abu Ragheef, an Iraqi security expert specialized in IS affairs.