The meeting with the world’s most wanted man took place at a secret location in the barren hinterland of eastern Syria, at the heart of Islamic State’s shrinking realm.
The gaunt, ailing figure who entered the long hall with bricked-up windows in May 2017 was a shadow of the man hailed as a modern-day caliph by his thousands of followers as they waged war in Iraq and Syria, fracturing those two nations and drawing the US and its allies into protracted Middle East conflicts.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the then 45-year-old leader of ISIS, raised a hand and greeted his confidants. Among them was an Iraqi named Ismail al-Eithawi.
Eithawi’s account of the meeting, described in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, offers a rare glimpse into Baghdadi’s inner circle and the tensions within it as their caliphate crumbled. While his account from Iraqi custody couldn’t be independently verified, a senior Iraqi security official said it corresponded with information from other sources.
The clandestine conclave took place as the group had already lost most of its territory and the battle for Mosul was nearing its climax.
Baghdadi sat at the far end of the room conversing in hushed tones, Eithawi said, with two members of the group’s Delegated Committee, a kind of cabinet within the organization. Eithawi said he understood the group’s leader was being briefed on the latest military developments when suddenly Baghdadi’s voice rose. “He shouted at them and accused them of being incompetent,” Eithawi said. “He was overcome with anger.” The two men were removed from the committee after the meeting.
Eithawi, who was there to discuss a draft of ISIS’s school curriculum, said he was struck by the leader’s deteriorated health. “He was extremely thin and his beard was whiter,” he said.
Only top members of the brutal extremist group had been invited to the secret gathering, and before setting out they had discarded their watches, pens and any other items that might conceal a tracking device planted by one of the many intelligence agencies pursuing them. It took the dozen men two days of car travel to reach the meeting place in the desert outside the Syrian town of Mayadin.
Within months, Eithawi would be captured in a joint operation by Iraqi, US and Turkish intelligence—one of the most senior ISIS members to be caught alive.
“Without a doubt, he was a big catch for the entire coalition and our efforts to destroy ISIS,” said coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan.
From Iraqi custody, Eithawi offered the most detailed account of Baghdadi since the ISIS leader took to the pulpit of a mosque in Mosul in the summer of 2014. There, in his only known public appearance, he urged Muslims all over the world to come to the UK-sized area ISIS had seized in Iraq and Syria, where it applied its uncompromising interpretation of Islam as law.
Four years on, the group has lost nearly all that territory and many of its leading members are dead, including three of those who attended the meeting.
Baghdadi, however, remains at large. He last surfaced in an audio message released in September, exhorting supporters across the globe to mount attacks against the West and fight on in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Remnants of the group have gone underground in Iraq to wage a renewed insurgency.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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