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Islamic State has lost 90 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria; So where is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The mosque now lies in ruins, destroyed by Islamic State fighters before Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. air power, recaptured the country's second-largest city in July after a nine-month campaign.

Raqqah, the group's de facto capital in Syria, fell to a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in September.

The militants are now concentrated in a string of Syrian villages along the Euphrates River and desert areas straddling the porous border between Syria and Iraq. It is here that Syrian and Iraqi commanders believe al-Baghdadi may be hiding.

Al-Baghdadi, who took the reins of Islamic State in 2010, is a Baghdad-trained cleric from the city of Samarra who is reported to have fought against U.S. forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. He was a follower of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who led a branch of al-Qaida in Iraq but fell out with the group over his bombing campaign against Shiite Muslims and gory beheading videos, which were considered too brutal even for al-Qaida.

Security officials in Iraq and Syria have periodically stated that al-Baghdadi was injured or killed in strikes, but those claims were never verified or were later denied.

In June, the Russian Defense Ministry said there was a "high probability" that al-Baghdadi had been killed the previous month in a Russian airstrike on a meeting of Islamic State leaders outside Raqqah. The Syrian Observatory disputed Russia's account, saying its sources had confirmed al-Baghdadi's death, but reported the death had happened in neighboring Dair Alzul province.

U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and other senior Pentagon officials, however, later said they believed al-Baghdadi was still alive and U.S. forces would continue to search for him.

In September, Islamic State released a purported audio recording of its leader in which al-Baghdadi sought to rally his beleaguered troops, many of whom are now said to be surrendering to the advancing forces.

In the 46-minute recording, al-Baghdadi praised his fighters for waging a fierce defense of Mosul and focused on the continuing threat posed by Islamic State-inspired attacks in places as far away as London, Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

"Now the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries, fearing the strikes of the mujahedeen," he said.

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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