Where in the world is Baghdadi? Activists and analysts attempt to trace IS leader

Where in the world is Baghdadi? Activists and analysts attempt to trace IS leader
Amateur online sleuths and professional analysts are, alongside intelligence officials, hard at work trying to pinpoint IS leader Baghdadi's whereabouts based on a new - and rare - propaganda video.
5 min read
30 Apr, 2019
Baghdadi appeared for the first time in five years on Monday [Twitter]
Professional analysts and online hobbyists are hard at work trying to trace the whereabouts of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after the so-called "caliph" appeared for the first time in five years in a video released by the extremist group on Monday.

Many analysts have termed the propaganda video a bid to prove that the so-called "caliph" is still alive, following a series of losses for the group.

IS also want to show supporters and opponents alike that the group will return to its insurgent roots before attempting to rise again, analysts believe.

The video, according to analysts, is also designed to emphasise to both IS supporters and the world that the extremist group will maintain an enduring global presence, with Baghdadi accepting pledges of allegiance from groups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Afghanistan and inspecting reports on IS "states" in Turkey, Somalia and the Caucasus, among other areas.

Mentions by Baghdadi of the defeat of IS in Baghouz and the pledge of allegiance by suicide bombers in Sri Lanka to IS make clear that the video was shot very recently, and have silenced multiple previous claims that the group's chief had been killed or incapacitated.

However, according to BBC Monitoring, references to the Easter Sunday Sri Lanka bombings appear later in the video, when Baghdadi's image disappears from the screen and only a voice, purported to be that of the IS chief, is heard. This renders the exact timestamp for the video hard to place.

Where in the world is Baghdadi?

During and after the battle for Baghouz, when US-backed forces captured hundreds of fighters and sent the last remnants of IS into hiding, there were reports of sightings of Baghdadi in Syria.

US special forces have been enlisted in the search for Baghdadi in Iraq, a senior Iraqi military official revealed to The New Arab back in January.

Earlier this month, US warplanes dropped leaflets over Iraq offering a reward of $25 million in return for information that would lead to the capture or killing of Baghdadi.

Shot indoors, there is little hope of using photo-based geolocation methods - such as those used by Bellingcat - to determine his location based on the video.

Instead, joked The Telegraph's Middle East correspondent Josie Ensor, US intelligence officials will be trying to determine Baghdadi's whereabouts based on whether the pillows he was sitting on in the video were made in Iraq or Syria.

While the idea of trying to pin down the extremist leader's location based on pillow cases may seem bizarre, it is one of the methods that officials and amateurs will be using to track down one of the world's most wanted men.

Tracing scarves and pillows

The pattern of the pillows Baghdadi and his associates were pictured lounging on was "very common" in Iraq, Iraqi analyst Rasha al-Aqeedi tweeted.

Sangar Khaleel, an Iraqi fixer based in Erbil, agreed that the fabric was traditionally used in Iraqi villages, but was produced in Syria.

Baghdadi is pictured with three unidentified associates in the video [Twitter]

Others were sceptical that the fabric would give any clues as to Baghdadi's whereabouts.

"Those ugly pillows are found all over the Middle East!" tweeted Angie Gad, an Egyptian-American professor.

An Afghani journalist, though, countered that the pillows' fabric indicated that the video had been filmed in Afghanistan.

Sound and Picture, a group of Syrian activists who document crimes committed by IS, agreed that the pillows were of Syrian origin, claiming that the fabric was of a design produced in Aleppo until 2013 and popular in Mosul and northeastern Syria.

Sound and Picture also pointed to the shemaghs (head scarves) worn by Baghdadi's three associates in the video, whose faces were obscured.

The design of the scarves, the group said, was typical to eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Dressed for winter

Others wondered if the heavy clothes worn by the IS leader might indicate he was located in a cold region, countering US intelligence officials' hypothesis that Baghdadi is located in Iraq's Anbar province, where the temperature is currently hovering around 28 degrees celsius.

Based on the fact that Baghdadi's mention of the Sri Lanka attacks was not recorded on video, Sound and Picture concluded that the video had been shot between 12 and 22 April.

The activist group claimed the only areas in eastern Syria and western Iraq which experienced cold weather during that period were the mountainous area between Sinjar and Tel Afar in northwestern Iraq and the al-Shadadi desert in northeastern Syria.

But, as Sound and Picture's reports manager Aghiad al-Kheder pointed out, many bases for the US-led coalition against IS are located in or around the Shadadi desert. The group thus believes Baghdadi is located in Tel Afar.

But this claim is still uncertain, as some amateur analysts wondered if the IS leader was not instead located underground or in an air-conditioned room when the video was filmed.

Others posited that, rather than being a practical choice, Baghdadi's style was simply a throwback to the fashions worn by IS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

Online trail

Some believe that the real hope in locating the IS leader lies in mistakes possibly made in distributing the video.

Analysts say that all it will take to locate Baghdadi is for one IS member in the upload and distribution chain to have slipped up.

Locating one element in the chain will leave everyone involved exposed - including Baghdadi.