The leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has abandoned operational commanders behind with diehard followers to continue waging the battle of Mosul in Iraq, said US and Iraqi officials.
He is now hiding out in the desert, focusing mainly on his own survival, they added.
It is impossible to confirm the whereabouts of the ISIS “caliph”, who declared himself the ruler of all Muslims from Mosul’s Great Mosque after his forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014.
But US and Iraqi intelligence sources say an absence of official communication from the group’s leadership and the loss of territory in Mosul suggest he has abandoned the city, by far the largest population center his group has ever held.
He has proved to be an elusive target, rarely using communication that can be monitored, and moving constantly, often multiple times in one 24-hour cycle, the sources say.
From their efforts to track him, they believe he hides mostly among sympathetic civilians in familiar desert villages, rather than with fighters in their barracks in urban areas where combat has been under way, the sources say.
US-backed Iraqi forces began an operation five months ago to recapture Mosul, a city at least four times the size of any other the group has held.
The 100,000-strong Iraqi force fully captured the eastern half of Mosul in January, and commanders began an operation to cross the Tigris and take the western half last month. Progress has since been steady and the coalition says its victory is now inevitable, which would dismantle the so-called “caliphate” in Iraq.
The intelligence sources point to a sharp drop in ISIS postings on social media as evidence that Baghdadi and his circle have become increasingly isolated.
Baghdadi himself has not released a recorded speech since early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he called on his followers to fight the “unbelievers” and “make their blood flow as rivers.”
US commanders sound upbeat and say the battle for the city is now in a late stage.
“The game is up,” US Air Force Brigadier General Matthew Isler told Reuters at the Qayyara West Airfield south of Mosul, adding that some of ISIS’ foreign fighters are trying to leave the city.
Those left behind to fight, mostly Iraqis, are putting up a “very hard fight” on the tactical level but they are no longer an integrated force, as coalition air strikes took out command and control centers, car bombs and weapon caches, he said.
“They have lost this fight and what you’re seeing is a delaying action,” he said.
Although the loss of Mosul would effectively end ISIS’ territorial rule in Iraq, US and Iraqi officials are preparing for the group to go underground and fight an insurgency like the one that followed the US-led invasion.
The “caliphate” as a state structure would end with the capture of Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria, possibly later this year. Raqqa is far smaller than Mosul, but mounting operations against ISIS in Syria has been trickier than in Iraq, because the group’s many Syrian enemies have mostly been pre-occupied fighting among themselves in a civil war since 2011.
“The inevitability of their destruction just becomes really a matter of time,” said Major General Rupert Jones, deputy commander for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
The last official report about Baghdadi was from the Iraqi military on Feb. 13. Iraqi F-16s carried out a strike on a house where he was thought to be meeting other commanders, in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, it said.
The US government has had a joint task force to track down Baghdadi which includes special operations forces, the CIA and other US intelligence agencies as well as spy satellites of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.
Earlier, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Wednesday that he will not hesitate to strike “terrorist sites” in neighboring countries, after Baghdad carried out air raids in Syria last month.
“I respect the sovereignty of states, and I have secured the approval of Syria to strike positions (on its territory),” he told a conference in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya.
Abadi announced Iraqi strikes against ISIS near the border in Syria that were believed to be the first of their kind by Baghdad’s forces.