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Wanted Dead or Alive: The Frustrating, Failing Hunt for ISIS Leader Baghdadi

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. 

Last month Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi declared the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq. Yet a pressing question remains—where is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the terrorist group that took over a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014 to establish the so-called caliphate, which terrorized millions in the region, horrified people all over the world, and inspired gruesome attacks in Europe and the United States?

Despite a $25 million U.S. State Department bounty on his head, al Baghdadi has managed to evade capture and death repeatedly. This, even with the fury of the U.S., Russian, Syrian, and Iraqi militaries focused on killing him.

While we were in Baghdad as researchers from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) last month interviewing cadres from the so-called Islamic State who, unlike their leader, were caught and brought to justice, an Iraqi prison interrogator asked, “With all of your country’s military might why is it that the U.S. can’t find al Baghdadi?”

It’s a good question.

Intelligence is best informed from on-the-ground sources, which, in the case of ISIS, the Americans lack. Western intelligence services have found it nearly impossible to insert spies into the terrorist organization. Jordanian sources claimed to us to have done so, and in Jordan’s case there is also a corroborating news story of an agent who had infiltrated and served as a commander in ISIS being airlifted out before the coalition’s final assault on the ISIS capital Raqqa.

Several Kosovar government officials also have told ICSVE researchers about their attempts to infiltrate the organization, but admit they failed. One of them was discovered and killed. And while the Israeli Mossad and Russia may have succeeded (that is certainly what they would like us to believe), it’s not clear that the intelligence received from any of these actors is, or was, coming out of the organization in real time.

Clearly no government or intelligence service has enough information to kill al Baghdadi.

During interviews with 66 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners to date, ICSVE researchers have learned that all cadres are highly controlled. Mobile phones are often taken from them. Those allowed to keep them often have their messages checked. Surveillance of communications is extremely tight. The fate of anyone accused of betraying ISIS is likely to be beheading. In our interviews we often heard of Russians, especially, decapitated after having been accused as spies—claims often made only out of suspicion and with little to no evidence backing them up.

The ISIS Emni (also written Amn or Amni, the intelligence arm of ISIS) was constantly on the alert for enemies within its own ranks, overseeing any external communications and carefully vetting those who joined. Recruits who appeared in Syria and Iraq without personal references spent time under Emni investigation, and often were sent directly to the front lines. The thinking was that if they took up arms, fought valiantly on behalf of the group and managed to survive, they were allowed in. If they died, “martyrdom” was their fate, and if they were true believers, they went to Paradise. Otherwise, to Hell.

Keep in mind as well, that ISIS is not just an agglomeration of fanatical volunteers, as it is sometimes portrayed. Its core structure was formed by a group of highly trained Iraqi former military and intelligence officers from Saddam Hussein’s government who were angry when they were dismissed and sent home following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Ultimately they allied with the short-lived but utterly savage group of jihadists that formed around the Jordanian firebrand Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who had won grudging recognition from Osama bin Laden as the leader of what became known as al Qaeda in Iraq.

The search for Zarqawi from 2003 until the Americans killed him in 2006 gives a glimpse of what’s going on now in the hunt for al Baghdadi.

Nada Bakos was one of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s “targeting officers” on Zarqawi’s trail. Now no longer with the CIA, she explained in a recent interview with the History Channel for a series about the ultimate demise of Adolf Hitler, “a targeting officer is a person who is analyzing information for the purposes of making it actionable—whether it’s working with the military or something the Agency itself could do.”

One sifts through “mountains and mountains” of information, said Bakos. “Everybody leaves a trace. … Everybody leaves some kind of footprint and some kind of pattern that you can find. Every human being is driven to seek out certain things: food, water, shelter, connection with other people. There are very basic instincts that drive a person to exist. And those leave a pattern.”

One also looks for weaknesses, and characteristics that set the prey apart: “Vulnerabilities of people on the run would include if they had a medical issue—understanding what that medical issue is and what they needed to treat that—family members, close friends, if they were interested in a particular area of the world, what they’d considered home,” said Bakos. “You’re trying to paint a picture of where someone might end up going—and what their strategy was and what their intent was.”

Zarqawi was “an evil maniac,” Bakos said. Indeed, more than a dozen years ago, he was drawing world attention to himself by beheading hostages, setting a gruesome precedent embraced enthusiastically by his ideological heirs. As he was pursued, “It was really all about trying to figure out where within the network would he feel safest,” said Bakos. “Where does he want to communicate from? How does he want to live and exist in day-to-day life? We knew he had family members who are around him once in a while. Trying to envision what it was that drove him to exist in the way he wanted to. What did he want his life to look like?”

Eventually the Special Operations task force pursuing Zarqawi learned that an imam and learned Islamic scholar he considered his spiritual advisor would be meeting him at a house outside the Iraqi city of Baquba in June 2006. Drones followed the imam’s car, and when the cleric entered the building, an American F16 flattened it with two 500-pound bombs.

But, Bakos notes something else we might want to remember as we look at the hunt for Baghdadi. Zarqawi’s organization “was literally a network of nodes and power centers,” and not very hierarchical, according to Bakos. Which meant that even after his death and even after what appeared to be a near-complete defeat in Iraq, the group was able to scatter, regroup, and reorganize in Syria, eventually re-emerging as the so-called Islamic State under the leadership, whether real or titular, of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

WE NOTICED THAT in our interviews very few of the former ISIS cadres we’ve spoken with, even those serving in the high ranks of ISIS, report having seen al Baghdadi in person. Since his infamous 2014 video recording from a mosque in Mosul where he declared the establishment of the ISIS “caliphate,” al Baghdadi has lived a reclusive life, only occasionally posting statements online. Despite being the leader of one of the most virulent terrorist organizations to date, the intelligence officers surrounding him have kept his location and movements a closely guarded secret.

That ISIS learned from its predecessor and sister terrorist organizations how to protect its leader should not be a surprise. Those from the intelligence world of Saddam Hussein knew what to do to avoid repetition of the attempted and actual executions of Chechen terrorist leaders Basayev and al Khattab by the Russians, and Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden by the United States, respectively. From the first moments of the formation of the ISIS caliphate the ISIS intelligence operatives took steps to minimize the possibility that al Baghdadi would meet the same fate and the organization would be prematurely decapitated.

So, finding al Baghdadi is not as simple as relying on the technical prowess of the American military, as our Iraqi interrogator believed. The highly precise and round-the-clock satellite surveillance that the United States employs and the sophisticated drones that can zoom in to search the ground in the greatest detail do very little to inform when the likes of al Baghdadi can scurry through the labyrinth of tunnels in Mosul and elsewhere that were built by ISIS. And when those tunnels are no longer available to him, al Baghdadi has the additional advantage of transforming his appearance, perhaps even disguising himself as an Arab woman hiding under a niqab to evade surveillance, as other ISIS cadres have attempted to do. While the U.S. troops and the U.S. supported Kurdish forces scour telephone intercepts, al Baghdadi almost certainly learned, as Osama bin Laden did, that he could only communicate with relative safety via couriers.

FOLLOWING THE 2003 U.S.-LED invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole in the ground. This was not the result of the $25 million bounty that also was put on his head. It took the Americans many months to catch Saddam after mounting a massive hunt for him. The capture was finally accomplished by pulling in his former bodyguards who, under interrogation, gave bits and pieces that finally led to the discovery of Saddam’s whereabouts. At the time of his capture, Saddam may also have lacked the kind of devoted network that al Baghdadi can still rely on, with as many as 20,000 ISIS cadres that have melted back into society, according to Iraqi officials. It’s also apparent that the ISIS Emni knows how to spirit its members across international borders.

Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, al Baghdadi has been reported killed, yet resurfaced multiple times‍.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, chief of the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria told a conference call with journalists at the end of August, as he was about to rotate out of his assignment, that he thought al Baghdadi was still at large, but the question of where was left vague, to say the least.

“I don’t have a clue. He could be anywhere in the world for all I know,” said Townsend.

“Here’s what I think. I think he’s somewhere in Iraq and Syria. I think he’s probably somewhere in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.”

This is an area, often referred to by the acronym MERV, that runs about 250 kilometers from around Deir ez-Zour in Syria to Rawah in Iraq. “That’s where they believe their last sanctuary is,” said Townsend. “So I think he’s probably somewhere down there.”

But Townsend noted that fighting in MERV would not be like the siege of a city or a neighborhood. “You can’t really just contain the whole Euphrates River valley and starve them out. It’s too big. It’s too complex,” he said. And there is the added complication that rival forces—the Russians and the Syrian army of Bashar Assad with its allied Iran-backed militias—have converged on the area at the same time as the U.S.-led coalition and its allies, which have approached from the opposite side of the river. Obviously, time that might be spent hunting for al Baghdadi is spent avoiding clashes between the forces converging to kill or capture him.

“We’re looking for him every day,” said Townsend. “When we find him, I think we’ll just try to kill him first. It’s probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him.”

That was more than four months ago, and the fighting, and the hunting, continues—along with the deconfliction issues. “We’re piling up a lot of airplanes in a very small piece of sky,” a senior U.S. Air Force officer in the operation told The New York Times at the end of December. Two senior figures, Abu Faysal and his deputy Abu Qudamah al Iraqi, were taken out by an airstrike on Dec. 1.

According to Daily Beast contributor Wladimir van Wilgenburg, who has followed the Syrian combat closely on the ground, “There are some remaining pockets of ISIS militants along the east bank of the Euphrates River [in Syria] and in the desert along the border with Iraq. Earlier this week 70 ISIS fighters and their families reportedly handed themselves over to the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces. So it’s possible Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is either in those pockets or in the desert. Most likely in the desert.”

Several Iraqi security officials that we spoke to last month said they strongly believe al Baghdadi is still around. Kurdish intelligence chief Lahur Talabany figured “99 percent he is alive.” Talabany cited the history of ISIS and its roots as al Qaeda in Iraq, which dispersed like bees when the hive was destroyed, then came back together in a swarm.

The man is wanted “dead or alive” but nobody seems to be sure which he is just now, which probably is just they way he’d like it.

“ABU BAKR AL BAGHDADI” is a kunya, a pseudonym similar to names many ISIS members give themselves indicating where they come from. In his case it means the father of Bakr, from Baghdad. In fact he was born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971, and his real name is Awwad Ibrahim Ali al Badri al Samarrai.

As head of the so-called Islamic State, Baghdadi sought to legitimize his claim as “caliph” with claims that his family ancestry traces back to the Prophet Muhammad, and because he had post-graduate training in Islamic studies.

But in operational terms a more important figure may have been Abu Muhammad al Adnani, often described as al Baghdadi’s right-hand man and the voice of the organization. He was the powerful head of the ISIS Emni who served as the “emir” of the Syrian territories and director of overseas operations, including horrific attacks in Europe. Unlike Baghdadi, Adnani was known for his battlefield strategy, prolific propaganda, and international plotting. He was killed by a coalition airstrike in 2016.

In the Zarqawi days, al Baghdadi was reported to have fallen out with Zarqawi, condemning his brutal bombings of Shiites. Yet when al Baghdadi came to head ISIS—and broke with al Qaeda’s core leadership—his terror organization became the most brutal seen to date, continuing the indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims. And what is known of al Baghdadi’s personal heartlessness is no different than that of Zarqawi.

American hostage Kayla Mueller was held for a time with a half-dozen Yazidi girls as sex slaves for al Baghdadi in the home of Abu Sayyaf, a Tunisian working as the ISIS oil and gas emir. Hostages held with Mueller, reported that she frequently was called for by al Baghdadi who raped her mercilessly. She was killed in 2014.

Al Baghdadi harbored a deep hatred for the U.S. after his capture by the Americans in 2004 and the 10 months he spent in Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib. Some credit his time in the U.S.-run prison as connecting him to other jihadis, although his ties to Zarqawi mean he was already well connected, and others wonder what effect the abuses in Abu Ghraib had on shaping his own subsequent actions.

In 2013, al Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that AQI and Jabhat al-Nusra terror groups were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” and later as the Islamic State. In 2014 he declared the ISIS Caliphate from Mosul and himself the Caliph—his only video performance to date. His latest public missive in September 2017, following an 11-month silence, was an audio recording urging his forces to resist the American supported Iraqi incursion into Mosul and to mount attacks worldwide. American forces judged it as authentic and current.

Iraqi Sunnis in Baghdad told us that he still sends messages to his followers, although they are likely relying on rumors. American intelligence sources have told CNN that they have failed to intercept any ISIS communications confirming his death and that given his stature in the organization, the U.S. expects to see significant chatter discussing his demise should he be killed.

In December 2017 an Iraqi Ministry of Intelligence officials told us, “Iraqis may turn up the heat on trying to catch him in the next three months, as it will be good propaganda for the Prime Minister to do so while facing his bid for reelection.” That said, another MOI officer shrugged off questions about the hunt for al Baghdadi, asking in return, “Does it matter anymore? ISIS is defeated.”

It does.

In Iraq, officials estimate from 6,000 to 20,000 ISIS cadres have melted back into the landscape, which means the group may still harbor the capabilities and manpower to carry out guerrilla warfare with smaller scale suicide attacks and bombings, particularly if there is a leader to order it. But at this point, even without their leaders, ISIS and al Qaeda have spawned a social movement of small actors who attack on their own.

Likewise, for all that ISIS has lost—the territory that it once claimed as the caliphate, the oil fields from which it derived the wealth and revenues to enable it to finance weapons supplies and salaries for its fighters, its ability to enslave and sell captured women, its clandestine theft and sale of antiquities and other valuables, and its ability to impose taxes on those who lived under it—the ISIS dream still remains.

Even ISIS defectors and prisoners, while expressing their disillusionment with the group and its tactics, often show evidence of remaining loyalty to the ISIS dream they were sold. The Islamic State’s offer to young men and women the world over who are frustrated with injustices, political inequalities, and lack of opportunities still remains. The ISIS promise to join in building a new form of governance that they falsely claim will uphold Islamic ideals, be inclusive and offer justice and opportunities to all Muslims is a heady one. This utopian dream of the true Islamic Caliphate peddled throughout the world by ISIS has not been destroyed.

The fact that al Baghdadi is at large may make it seem to those true believes even more possible to resurrect the defeated empire.

As Gen. Townsend put it last August, “In 2014, the world watched in horror as ISIS seized more than 100,000 square kilometers of Syria and Iraq and brought more than 7 million people under its barbaric control. ISIS was something the world had rarely seen before. ISIS is the most evil entity I have encountered in my lifetime.”

Not only must we break the ISIS brand totally, discrediting entirely the dream they have sold as possible to achieve through violence and brutality, we must also do all we can to continue the hunt for the 25 Million Dollar Man, so that, one way or another, those who supported him and those he victimized can see he has been made to pay for all the crimes against humanity carried out under his leadership.

—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (1-6-2018) Wanted Dead or Alive: The Frustrating, Failing Hunt for ISIS Leader Baghdadi, Daily Beast 

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Terrorism

Kashmir puts Chinese counterterrorism on the defensive

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Heightened tension in Kashmir and evidence of a Chinese military presence on the Tajik and Afghan side of their border with China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang are putting on display contradictions between the lofty principles of the People’s Republic’s foreign and defense policies and realities on the ground.

The escalating tension between Pakistan and India puts to the test what Pakistan and China tout as an “all-weather friendship.” The test will likely occur when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, debates an Indian demand that the South Asian nation, already grey-listed, be put on the organization’s black list.

With the attack and its aftermath unfolding as FATF this week concluded a meeting in Paris, the Kashmir incident is expected to really play out in June when the group is certain to discuss a report that is expected to provide what India considers evidence of Pakistan’s alleged culpability for this month’s attack on a bus in Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary personnel as well as Pakistani backing for the group believed responsible for the assault and other militant organizations.

Pakistan has denied the allegations and offered to help investigate the Kashmir incident.

China, however, despite refusing to prevent FATF from grey-listing Pakistan last year, will find it increasingly difficult to defend its shielding of Pakistan in the United Nations and could be caught in the crossfire as it continues to protect Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group believed responsible for the Kashmir attack.

Like in the past, China this week rejected an Indian request that it no longer block designation of Mr. Azhar by the UN Security Council as a global terrorist. China asserts that Indian evidence fails to meet UN standards.

Nonetheless, China’s shielding of Mr. Azhar risks it being perceived as violating the spirit of the 2017 summit in Xiamen of BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – that for the first time identified Pakistan-backed militant groups as a regional security threat.

Question marks about China’s approach to the countering of political violence and militancy also reflect on China’s justification of its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

Concern that militant Uyghurs, the predominant Turkic Muslim minority in Xinjiang, including foreign fighters exfiltrating Syria and Iraq, could use Central Asia as an operational base has prompted China to violate its declared principle of not wanting to establish foreign military bases.

China has been believed to be involved for several years in cross-border operations in Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, both of which border on Xinjiang.

A Washington Post report this week, based on a visit by one of its correspondents to the Tajik-Chinese border provided evidence of China’s military presence on the Tajik side of the dividing line. “We’ve been here three, four years,” a Chinese soldier told the reporter.

Evidence of the long-reported but officially denied Chinese military presence in Tajikistan comes on the back of China’s increasing effort to put in place building blocks that enable it to assert what it perceives as its territorial rights as well as safeguard Xinjiang and protect its mushrooming Diaspora community and overseas investments that are part of its Belt and Road initiative.

The evidence in Tajikistan, moreover, follows the establishment of a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and facilities in the South China Sea that bolster China’s disputed territorial claims.

Beijing is quietly establishing a security presence in CA (Central Asia) that is broader and deeper than just facilities or hundreds of PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldiers on the ground,” said Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Alexander Gabuev.

Potentially, China’s military expansion into Central Asia could complicate relations with Russia that sees the Eurasian heartland, once part of the Soviet Union, as its backyard. Continued expansion would call into question a seeming Chinese-Russian division of labour that amounted to Russian muscle and Chinese funding.

Like China, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to be nibbling at the edges of that understanding on a visit to Central Asia this month in which he dangled investment, economic assistance and security guarantees.

Mr. Lavrov’s travels followed a visit to Uzbekistan in October by President Vladimir Putin that produced US$27 billion in commercial deals.

“Russia would be smart to rethink its policy towards CA, and base new approach on support for sovereignty of local states. If Russia won’t view the 5”(Central Asian) states as its subjects, they are likely to seek greater engagement with Moscow to balance Beijing’s econ/sec influence,” Mr. Gabuev said, referring to China’s economic and security interests.

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Pulwama Attacks: Pakistan takes on India again

Sisir Devkota

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The attacks by Jaish-e-Muhammed on Indian security forces has come at a tricky time; Modi led government’s reaction to the killings, and the preparations for the 2019 general elections, are two events, that are going to intrigue imagination of wide possibilities. Forty men lost their lives, in the kind of barbarism that India expects from Pakistani non-state actors. Mind the assertion; if media sources in India can prove that Masood Azhar-the master mind, controlled the entire event from a military hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan has landed itself in a great limbo. Masood Azhar is no longer a non-state actor in Pakistan; instead he is a Pakistani non-state actor. Pay attention, there is a difference.

The fact that India failed to anticipate such an attack, again, is beyond sound logic. Terrorist attacks on armed convoys over bordering highways, is but a chilling script that keeps the Indian administration on their toes. Mind the lapse. What a miss!

What happened?

Nobody in India and elsewhere predicted this. PM Narendra Modi did not see this coming. Not the intent, but the magnitude of casualties. For this alone, Pakistani non-state actor(s) calculated brilliantly. They intercepted a psychological lapse of a strong, yet busy Prime Minister. Let us also pretend that there was a rare moment of blunder by the Indian intelligence. That leaves us to the only realistic assumption of what might have happened.

For many years, India has maintained the vocal discourse of Pakistan’s deceitful personality in dealing with transnational issues. The Pulwama killings would have choked Narendra Modi, reminding him the lesson of how a wild animal can never be tamed. More so, not when they promise to not hurt you. Imran Khan is an icon, but no excuses this time, the blood is in his hands. From an observatory perspective, one cannot help but conclude that there is an element of serious political assurance turning into fraudulence.

After-effects

Two months prior to the 2019 general elections, the Indian Prime Minister has woken up to the challenges, that nobody in India would have not predicted. Still, the Pulwama attacks has placed him in a very awkward position. It is a well-documented fact that India can carry out surgical strikes, just like it has in the recent past. Equally, it can only be fair to assume that Pakistan will be ready this time. The story will lose all plot, if Pakistan, like India fails to anticipate another precision attack on its border. Mind the context, it actually means something more.

Reportedly, PM Modi threatened against Pakistani aggression; however, India stands on crossroads. From the Pakistani logic, time has subsided India’s options. Imagine another strike gone wrong in the enemy’s territory. Imagine a full-fledged war, overtaking the carousal of national elections. Islamabad is ready this time. In the worst case, they have managed to manufacture a predictable excuse to penalize India’s confronting military creativity. Pay attention, there are little choices. And the consequences are alarming.

Pakistan’s credibility

Regardless of all legitimate Indian accusations, Pakistan would be less worried, by Indian threats to isolate them diplomatically. While the current Indian rhetoric might be another disguise before their jets ignite for a military crackdown; Pakistan has and will operate with their elements of non-state actors. Hence, there is no question about credibility. Mind the change in Pakistani attitude. Before, non-state actors were merely a means to their ends. Now, the Pakistani military is on the front foot, itching for an Indian reaction. Calculations have been made. The Pulwama attacks are a testimony to their intentions. The international community will be hoping that India will let go this time; take it under their chin, once again. There is an acute wish to avoid a situation of hypocrisy. Given a foreseeable Indian aggression, Pakistan will seek international assurance based on equality. The rules apply the same for everyone.

Distinctive

For good reasons, the Pulwama killings will presumably lead to a peaceful solution. The Indian reaction will be gold for academic books, that are based on solving inter-state disputes. India owes a reaction to all kinds of anticipative communities, on a platform that Pakistan has calculatedly fished for their arch-rivals. The ball is in India’s court. A moment of magnifique for Narendra Modi, or a strategic tit for tat for Pakistan? Mind the set-up. Evenly poised!

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ISIS Smuggler: Sleeper Cells and ‘Undead’ Suicide Bombers Have Infiltrated Europe

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci & Hamid Sebaly

Europe is bracing for a new wave of jihadist attacks by terrorists affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, what “you might call ISIS 2.0,” as Interpol chief Jürgen Stock recently told reporters. Some previously imprisoned jihadists are being released from jail, others are returning to Europe—and to prison—while still others, we have learned, have never been known to police and operate as “sleeper cells” waiting to be mobilized.

It is in the face of such concerns that U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned, despite President Donald Trump’s assertions to the contrary, that ISIS is still far from defeated.

Last week, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) interviewed 18 ISIS cadres held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) closely allied with U.S. coalition forces in Syria. Two of the prisoners interviewed were former members of the ISIS intelligence operation known as the “emni,” sometimes also written as “amni.”

One of them, a Tunisian named Abdel Kadr, was a 35-year-old athletic-looking and obviously clever individual, who had illegally smuggled himself into Europe in 2008 and then managed to get legal residency, to live and work there, by marrying a German. Abdel Kadr claimed to have “found religion” and also, like many foreign fighters, to have been moved by the plight of Syrians assaulted by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which caused him to leave Germany for Syria in 2014, driving an ambulance loaded with humanitarian supplies.

Abdel Kadr ultimately joined and served ISIS until he was captured by the YPG last year. He appears to have had high-level access in ISIS and was open to discussing what he knows while also seeking not to incriminate himself.

Regarding the ISIS emni, Abdel Kadr says there are both internal and external emni networks in ISIS, the former enforcing security within the self-declared caliphate and the latter sending operatives outside of it, to be sleeper cells organizing attacks in Europe and globally. They are not police but intelligence operatives, he said. “They live 24 hours per day with a mask. They are chosen specially for this. They have their own houses, special families. They have been chosen specially, and many were sent back to Europe.”

People smuggling

Prior to joining ISIS, Abdel Kadr had been a human and goods smuggler based in Germany, working between Turkey and Europe. He said he joined the Islamic State alongside his friend Dominic, a white German convert to Islam. Dominic wanted to return to Germany to work as an undercover operative for ISIS and, being fair-skinned with no known criminal history, he believed he could do so undetected. (He should not be confused with Dominic Musa Schmitz, a Salafi who wrote a book in German in 2016 about his disillusionment with Salafi Islam.)

“There are a lot of those who were trained by ISIS to go into Europe,” said Abdel Kadr. The emni member who trained and facilitated many of them was also a white European, an Austrian who went by the kunya, or pseudonym, of Abu Musa al-Almani.

“He was in charge of Germany,” Abdel Kadr explained. “He spoke around seven languages: German, Dutch, French, Arabic, and German with the accent of Austria. He was an Austrian native with long hair and a red beard,” Abdel Kadr said. “He was from a wealthy family in Austria and a convert from Christianity. I met him in Syria, but he was moving everywhere.” He was traveling back and forth via Turkey.

“I heard about this wave that they prepared for Europe,” Abdel Kadr told us. “They asked me if I’d like to go back to Germany. They were saying to me if you want to go back don’t worry about money, but they don’t know how I think.”

Abdel Kadr was content at that time inside ISIS doing business on the side and making considerable profits. And he had a ready excuse for begging off from such a mission. “I have seven pieces of shrapnel in my body,” he explained. “If I pass through an airport they will catch me.” Also, he looks like the Arab he is, and is liable to fall prey to profiling. “They were sending athletic guys who look European back into Europe,” Abdel Kadr told us.

The ISIS emni asked Abdel Kadr to return to his former human smuggling trade. “They wanted me to make logistics and coordination because before I joined ISIS and came, I was smuggling people between Turkey and Greece.” That was when Abdel Kadr was living in Germany with his German wife, making thousands of dollars smuggling Bengalis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans who had already made their way into Turkey on into Europe. The back trails across the border were primitive and rough, he said, but he knew them. “Our bridge to cross the river was a tree we cut for that purpose.”

ISIS intelligence “knew I was a people smuggler. All my German friends knew I was a smuggler,” Abdel Kadr explained. “Abu Musa al-Almani, who was in charge of Germany, came to me in Raqqa with Dominic and asked me about the smuggling. He said, ‘Dawlah [the State, ie. ISIS] needs you. The whole nation of Islam needs you.’”

The emni asked Abdel Kadr to help them smuggle trained operatives back into Europe following the routes from Turkey into Greece that he had previously exploited. Abdel Kadr claims he refused. “I took my injuries as an excuse to escape from this, I have a screw in my leg, shrapnel [from a bomb attack]. It took seven kilometers walking to get across to Greece. My role was five kilometers up to the tree [bridge]. Someone else took them inside, an Algerian guy.”

Abdel Kadr claims that he told ISIS he was no longer fit enough to do it. It may be true that he refused, as he was at the time engaged in a smuggling and trade operation inside ISIS, enriching himself there, or he may in fact have re-engaged in his former trade but did not want to tell us.

The Undead

According to Abdel Kadr, when the emni was going to send a European back to attack they would first falsely announce inside ISIS, and on their external media, that he had been killed fighting or in a bomb attack. But later, it would be revealed that he was actually alive and had successfully attacked in Paris or Brussels, for instance, and had been “martyred” there.

In the case of most suicide attacks in Europe, according to Abdel Kadr, the death of the operative is announced by ISIS a few months earlier, when in fact, “they took them to a camp to train them. Then after you get a communiqué about their action in Europe. The communiqué on this date stated he died in France or Belgium, but for ourselves, seven or eight months before [we had heard] they were announcing his death.”

The same was true of Dominic, according to Abdel Kadr. “ISIS said he was killed, but it wasn’t true. He lived next to me and when I went to see his wife and children inside the ISIS area [in Tabqa, near Raqqa], they told me, ‘He is not killed, but we don’t know where he is.’” Abdel Kadr already knew Dominic’s desire to return to Europe to serve ISIS.

“He’s alive somewhere,” Abdel Kadr told us. “Up to now, there is no communiqué [about his actions in Europe].” Abdel Kadr, who is imprisoned by the YPG and says he is now totally disillusioned with ISIS, claims to have tried to thwart any possible attack by Dominic by alerting German and European intelligence about his friend’s “disappearance” and fake death announcement inside of ISIS.

“There are 1,000 partisans in Europe,” Abdel Kadr claims. “They have a big plan to introduce hundreds of refugees from all nationalities of the world,” he claims, saying ISIS was able to insert them into the refugee streams flowing into Europe. Many are sent to Europe with false passports. “They are processed by surgery, training and language and they send them as sleeping cells. In Turkey they give them hair transplants, surgically change their eyes, even the eye color.” (Presumably that would be with contact lenses.)

At least two of the attackers who struck Paris in November 2015 had entered Europe among refugees and carried false papers.

In 2015, Harry Sarfo, a German whose family originally was from Ghana, and who’d grown up in Britain, working as a postman there before he joined ISIS, was pressured by the ISIS emni to train and return to attack in Germany. He told the authorities, and later Der Spiegel and The New York Times, about his training and knowledge of these ISIS emni activities.

ISIS was telling Europeans to book short vacations in resorts in the south of Turkey, take many pictures, and then come to train for a short time with ISIS to be sent back to join sleeper cells in Europe. Without overstaying their Turkish visas and with the strong alibi of the resort booking and pictures to confirm it, they passed suspicions if questioned by security about their activities.

Abdel Kadr confirmed that this indeed was happening. “They are able to bring a youth into ISIS and then back into his family without the knowledge of his parents. They send him home to Europe after one year in training with ISIS,” he states. “There are some people who came with European faces for a short time and went back through Turkey,” he explains. “Like my friend, Dominic. I think he’s living in Europe,” Abdel Kadr concludes.

When asked about this case and others like it, a high-level YPG security official explains that his organization is doing everything it can to stop such operations. The YPG says it has caught and now holds in its prisons over 3,500 foreign fighters, many of them Europeans.

But the Kurds feel frustrated knowing that these foreigners streamed in through Turkey, some of them received medical help inside Turkey when injured, and most of the logistical supplies and extra food supplies for ISIS were delivered across the Turkish border.

Although the YPG has provided the core ground force working with the Americans to defeat ISIS, President Trump’s decision to withdraw some 2,000 U.S. troops providing logistical and other support leaves the organization in a vulnerable position. The Turkish government insists that the YPG is a branch of the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, which Ankara and many other governments, including the U.S., deem a terrorist organization.

The YPG says the Turks have actually been complicit with ISIS. “They call us the terrorists” another YPG military intelligence officer told us, “but we are fighting terrorism every single day, losing our lives by the thousands doing so and trying to keep Europe safe from such people. We are fighting terrorism, while others are helping them to come and go, in and out of Syria, across our borders.”

Author’s note: Article first published in The Daily Beast

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