One of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s closest confidants who provided key information that led U.S. forces to the ISIS leader’s compound says his hiding tactics were ‘excellent’ and described one of his underground bunkers as being filled with religious texts.
Mohammed Ali Sajet, who is related to Baghdadi via marriage and has been an ISIS member since 2015, was arrested by Iraqi officials two months ago near Baghdad.
He is said to have told Iraqi authorities about Baghdadi’s possible location in Syria and also gave up details about a courier that was working for the ISIS leader.
Sajet is one of several confidants that gave up information on Baghdadi that helped U.S. intelligence officials eventually track the notorious ISIS leader down.
In an interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV on Sunday, Sajet said Baghdadi’s ‘hiding tactics were excellent’.
He described one of Baghdadi’s hideouts, saying it was an underground bunker filled with religious texts.
Mohammed Ali Sajet, one of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s closest confidants, provided key information that led U.S. forces to the ISIS leader’s compound in Syria
‘He was in an 8-meter-long underground tunnel with a width of 5 to 6 meters. It had a library, religious books and the Quran and things of sort,’ Sajet said.
‘It had lights and various things so the hiding situation was good.’
It is not clear if this was part of the same compound where Baghdadi was found on Saturday.
An Iraqi government official told CNN that Sajet had also given up information about a courier working for Baghdadi.
The information Saget provided helped lead to Baghdadi’s capture on Saturday night in Syria when U.S. forces stormed his compound, according to the official.
Baghdadi blew himself up after being cornered by U.S forces in a dead-end underground tunnel in his Syrian compound.
The Iraqi official said they started tracking the courier and his wife after Saget gave up the details while in custody.
The courier was killed in a subsequent raid but his wife led Iraqi authorities to a different location where they were able to find further information that directed them towards Baghdadi.
Iraqi officials then tipped off the Americans, according to the source.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had been monitoring Baghdadi and collecting information from sources for six months.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blew himself up after being cornered by U.S forces in a dead-end underground tunnel in his Syrian compound on Saturday night
Once al-Baghdadi was confirmed dead, U.S. forces grabbed every computer, every phone, every bit of paper they could find before retreating. The last action was to call in an airstrike by US drones, reducing Baghdadi’s hideout to rubble, wiping it from the face of the Earth and covering their tracks
Two Iraqi security officials say one of Baghdadi’s top aides also sold him out to intelligence officials by giving up information on how the leader had managed to evade capture for so many years.
In their long hunt for al-Baghdadi, Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February 2018 after aide Ismael Ethawi gave them vital information.
Ethawi told officials after he was arrested by Turkish authorities and handed to the Iraqis that Baghdadi would sometimes hold strategy talks with his commanders in moving minibuses packed with vegetables in order to avoid detection.
‘Ethawi gave valuable information which helped the Iraqi multi-security agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi’s movements and places he used to hide,’ one of the Iraqi security officials said.
‘Ethawi gave us details on five men, including him, whom were meeting Baghdadi inside Syria and the different locations they used.’
The path to Baghdadi’s demise was full of frustrations for Western and Arab intelligence agencies, who have pored over clues to the whereabouts of a man who imposed a reign of terror across a large swathe of Syria and Iraq, ordering his men to carry out mass executions and beheadings.
Turning militants such as Ethawi was critical to the agents trying to track Baghdadi.
Ethawi, who holds a PHD in Islamic Sciences, was considered by Iraqi intelligence officials to be one of the leader’s top five aides.
He joined al Qaeda in 2006 and was arrested by U.S. forces in 2008 and jailed for four years, according to the Iraqi security officials.
Baghdadi later tasked Ethawi with key roles such as delivering religious instructions and the selection of Islamic State commanders. After the group largely collapsed in 2017, Ethawi fled to Syria with his Syrian wife.
Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called Islamic caliphate, blew himself up during the targeted attack on his lair in Syria’s Idlib province in the early hours of Sunday morning. His lair was in a village known for smuggling, and he arrived there 48 hours before the raid
An aerial view of the site taken shows the damage the helicopter caused on the site where al-Baghdadi was thought to have lived
Another turning point came earlier this year during a joint operation in which U.S., Turkish and Iraqi intelligence agents captured senior Islamic State leaders, including four Iraqis and one Syrian, the Iraqi security officials said.
‘They gave us all the locations where they were meeting with Baghdadi inside Syria and we decided to coordinate with the CIA to deploy more sources inside these areas,’ said one of the Iraqi officials, who has close ties to multiple security agencies.
‘In mid-2019 we managed to locate Idlib as the place where Baghdadi was moving from village to village with his family and three close aides,’ the official said.
Informants in Syria then spotted an Iraqi man wearing a checkered headdress in an Idlib marketplace and recognized him from a photograph, the official said. They followed him to the home where Baghdadi was staying.
‘We passed the details to the CIA and they used a satellite and drones to watch the location for the past five months,’ the official said.
Two days ago, Baghdadi left the location with his family for the first time, traveling by minibus to a nearby village.
‘There it was his last moment to live,’ the official said.
Baghdadi was also on the run from local enemies in Syria.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front and which dominates Idlib, had been mounting its own search for Baghdadi after receiving information he was in the area, according to a commander in an Idlib jihadist group.
The Nusra Front and Islamic State were rivals who fought bloody battles against each other in the Syrian war.
Trump watched the raid unfold from the situation room. He was joined by National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper and United States Army General Mark A. Milley
The Nusra Front, founded by Abu Mohamad al-Golani, was al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria until it broke away from the global jihadist network in 2016.
According to the Idlib commander, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham recently captured another aide to Baghdadi known as Abu Suleiman al-Khalidi, one of three men seen sitting alongside Baghdadi in his last video message.
The capture of Khalidi was ‘the key’ in the search for Baghdadi, the commander said.
His comments raised the possibility that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which locals say is believed to have contacts with Turkish forces in northwest Syria, may have passed on what it learned to other intelligence agencies.
Baghdadi may have concluded that hiding in Idlib was his best hope after Islamic State was all but wiped out in Iraq and Syria. He could have blended in, while lax security and checkpoints operated by armed groups that rarely search vehicles increased his chances of survival, the commander said.
He said Baghdadi was believed to have been in Idlib for about six months, and that his main reason for being there was to try to hide. But he said Baghdadi was still seen as a major threat because his presence would have attracted supporters in an area where Islamic State has sleeper cells.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters raided the town of Sarmin about two months ago after receiving information about Baghdadi being there, but he was not found, according to the commander.