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STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT INTERNATIONAL-Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi recently escaped to Afghanistan via Iran, it emerged this weekend.
Al-Baghdadi is believed to have reached Nangarhar Province, situated east of the Afghan capital Kabul, on the border with Pakistan. According to Pakistani security sources, Al-Baghdadi crossed through the Iranian city of Zahedan, where Iran borders the southwest tip of Afghanistan, Asharq Al-Awsat reported.
Asharq Al-Awsat added that “according to the sources, ISIS [Daesh] manages a location to host its fighters in Zahedan in cooperation with [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)”. Such allegations of cooperation between the IRGC and Daesh will be seen as significant in light of Iran’s participation in the Syrian civil war against such terrorist groups. Iran has supported forces loyal to the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, as well as seemingly allowed IRGC forces to be present on the ground in Syria.
It is thought that Al-Baghdadi has fled to Afghanistan to avoid “Operation Roundup,” which was launched last week by the international coalition against Daesh and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The operation is the third phase of an ongoing effort to clear south-eastern Syria of its remaining Daesh strongholds and has created violence in the towns of Hajin, Al-Baghouz and Al-Sussa, close to the Iraqi border.
Conflicting reports of Al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts have emerged over the years. 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 appeared via Daesh’s media outlet and stressed “the scale of victory or defeat is not dependant on a city or town being stolen or subject to that who has aerial superiority, intercontinental missiles or smart bombs”. It is not clear from where Al-Baghdadi made the recording.
In February, Algeria’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Defence Minister Ahmed Gaid Salah visitedTamanrasset, in the country’s south east, amid rumours that Al-Baghdadi was in the region. Salah supervised military exercises designed to deter any potential attacks by Daesh-affiliated groups or militants, though it was unclear whether Algeria had any confirmed intelligence of Al-Baghdadi’s presence in the area. The same month, Iraq’s Interior Ministry official Ali Al-Basri said that Al-Baghdadi was receiving treatment at a field hospital in the Syrian desert. Al-Basri added that he received “confirmed information from sources within the organisation [which] indicate that Al-Baghdadi’s health and psychological situation have deteriorated”.
The Daesh leader has also been declared dead on several occasions. In July 2017 Daesh claimedAl-Baghdadi had been killed in an air strike in Nineveh, located on the outskirts of Mosul in northern Iraq. The reports were confirmed by Russia and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In July, however, Iraqi intelligence officers contradicted reports of his death, claiming instead he was still in hiding near Raqqah, in the north of Syria.
By October 2017, the US also insisted that Al-Baghdadi was still alive after it confirmed that an audio recording alleged to be made by the leader was genuine. In February 2018 a spokesperson for the international coalition against Daesh, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said that “there is no conclusive evidence to believe that Baghdadi was 100 per cent killed […] so we suggest that he is still alive and we will continue searching for him”.