ISIS leader flees to Afghanistan: report

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reported to have fled to Afghanistan via Iran, to escape "Operation Roundup," a final offensive against remnant Islamic State pockets in Syria's eastern desert. The operation was launched last week by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Baghdadi is believed to have reached Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan. According to Pakistani security sources, Baghdadi crossed through the Iranian border city of Zahedan. The sources claimed Baghdadi received protection from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as he passed through the country's territory. ISIS now holds only three towns in Syria—Hajin, a-Baghouz and al-Sussa, all close to the Iraqi border.

In August, Al-Baghdadi gave his first purported speech in almost a year, calling on followers to fight on despite recent defeats. The 55-minute audio recording stressed, "the scale of victory or defeat is not dependent on a city or town being stolen or subject to that who has aerial superiority, intercontinental missiles or smart bombs." It is not clear where the recording was made.

In February, Algeria's chief of staff and deputy defense minister Ahmed Gaid Salah visited the oasis town of Tamanrasset, in the country’s southeast, amid rumors that Baghdadi was in the area. Salah oversaw military exercises designed to deter any potential attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups or militants. The same month, Iraqi Interior Ministry official Ali al-Basri said he had received intelligence indicating that Baghdadi was receiving treatment at a field hospital in the Syrian desert.

In July 2017 ISIS claimed Baghdadi had been killed in an air-strike on the outskirts of Mosul in northern Iraq. The reports were initially confirmed by Russia and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Iraqi intelligence officers contradicted reports of his death, claiming instead he was still in hiding near Raqqa, in the north of Syria.

In October 2017, the US also insisted that Baghdadi was still alive, after confirming that an audio recording alleged to have been made by the leader was authentic. In February 2018 a representative for the international coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, said that "there is no conclusive evidence to believe that Baghdadi was 100 percent we suggest that he is still alive and we will continue searching for him." (Middle East Monitor, Sept. 24)