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1. Two sources have confirmed to the New York Times that Baghdadi’s location in Idlib was confirmed as far back as early July, so 3.5 months ago. I spent months working on his obituary. Here’s what I can share now: nytimes.com/2019/10/27/wor…
2. Back in the summer, two people were arrested that led the CIA to flesh out the terror chieftain’s location: His courier & one of his wives. They provided details that combined with other intel allowed the CIA to hone in on a compound in Idlib - but it was too dangerous to go.
3. The compound where he was included civilians & being in Idlib, it was in both Syrian and Russian airspace. One source told me then that they had info he was going to move, and they planned to take him out during the move. But he didn’t move. For weeks, then months, he stayed.
4. Had he been tipped off that something was afoot? Did he find it odd that his trusted courier and one of his wives had gone silent? It’s unclear. But we know that geopolitically everything changed this month, when a presidential phone call led to Turkey’s invasion of Syria
5. Sources we’ve spoken to indicate that the mission had to be rushed, because America was losing its visibility due to the pullout of US forces. Many are surprised Baghdadi was hiding in Idlib. But there were data points leading up to the raid indicating an ISIS presence there.
6. For example, in February when US-backed Kurdish troops in Syria were battling to take back the last village of Baghuz, there was a ceasefire as the Kurds negotiated with ISIS. What did ISIS want for leaving Baghuz? Safe passage to Idlib. nytimes.com/2019/03/23/wor…
7. In 2015, I began collecting interviews with people who had directly interacted with Baghdadi to build a portrait of the terror chief. In all, I’ve spoken to 17 people who knew him, including his teachers, his childhood friends, his aides & three of the Yazidi girls he raped.
8. Along with @ivorprickett & Falih Hassan, I traveled to Al Jallam, the village where he was born & to Samarra, where he moved as a boy. We visited the first mosque he attended, and his former high school, where Ivor photographed his transcript. This is Baghdadi as a teen:
9. What I’ve learned on this beat is that there’s a lot of stuff that gets repeated as fact without anyone trying to verify it, and over time it becomes the truth. Here are the surprising things I learned about Baghdadi when I took the time to go down the dirt tracks of his life
10. We are familiar with the atrocities his group carried out & are used to thinking of Baghdadi as a criminal & a thug. But those who knew him as a teen & as a young man described him as having a spiritual gift. The owner of the first mosque he attended described him like this:
11. The owner of the mosque talked about how Baghdadi as a boy would - unprompted - lead the other boys in cleaning the mosque, hauling the carpets outside, hosing them down and drying them in the sun. This was his pastime while other kids hung out and did wheelies on their bikes
12. This was one of numerous anecdotes I collected from people at his first and at his second mosque, who surprised me with the affection they spoke of Baghdadi. They described him as devoted to the religion & also as a talented reciter of scripture. By the time he was a teen...
13. .... worshippers at the Samarra mosque that Baghdadi attended began asking the mosque owner to have Baghdadi - and only Baghdadi - recite the scripture during Friday prayer, essentially replacing the imam. “His voice was like a bird,” said one former attendee.
14. Another frequently regurgitated thesis about Baghdadi is that he was a normal guy until he ended up in US captivity in Camp Bucca. That it was *there* that he radicalized. I spoke to four of his former cellmates. Turns out he was well radicalized before he arrived at Bucca
15. You see flashes of it in his teens. He berated a friend for getting a tattoo, calling it a violation of Islamic law; he even reprimanded his mentor, the owner of the mosque, for smoking because it was anti-Islamic. “The smell of your breath will make the angels fly away.”
16. By the time he got to Bucca in 2004, he was so radicalized that he began inciting attacks against Shia prisoners using metal shanks salvaged from the air conditioning unit. The sectarian hatred of the Shia was a later hallmark of ISIS.
17. One of his cellmates - a man who is in the Iraqi equivalent of witness protection - told me that Baghdadi encouraged so many attacks against other Shia inmates, that Shia prisoners began to fear for their lives if they were in Baghdadi’s tent. They asked to be reassigned.
18. In this manner, Baghdadi succeeded in creating an all Sunni tent, said his former cellmate. Once that happened, Baghdadi began policing the behavior of other Sunnis: Why is your beard so short? How dare you smoke? It wasn’t Bucca that made him. He was already that way
19. He didn’t end up on the radar of Iraqi intelligence until years after his 2004 release from Bucca. By then he was a cunning operator. Several of his senior associates who were captured and spoke to me in jail described how Baghdadi hasn’t used a phone in a decade.
20. Senior Baghdadi aides Ismael al-Ithawy and Jamal al-Mashadani described how every time they saw Baghdadi, they were told to hand over all their electronics including their wristwatches. Then they were blindfolded & driven for hours before arriving at a villa where he awaited
21. These same aides also dispelled rumors of Baghdadi having been injured. He walked in on his own two feet. The only thing they noticed is that he took pills - for diabetes and hypertension, he told one of them.
22. Finally, I spoke to three of the Yazidi girls Baghdadi raped. They were held alongside American aid worker Kayla Mueller, also raped by him. They confirmed what we learned from this raid: He surrounded himself with his family. Those were the only people he trusted at the end
23. Thank you to @ivorprickett for the atmospheric photos of Baghdadi’s life and times and my Iraqi brother Abu Malic for walking from mosque to mosque and village to village with me.
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