The secret lives of young IS fighters

Three young IS militants lie dead on the banks of the River Tigris.

They left behind personal photos and documents which reveal the extraordinary story of their private lives.

Warning: Disturbing content

Mohammed is giddy with excitement as he films the discovery of three IS fighters on his mobile phone.

“Shoot him,” he shouts, gesturing at one of them.

His nervousness gives him away as the unit’s cook. He’s unarmed, but his fellow soldiers from the Iraqi police special forces – known as the Emergency Response Division – are armed to the teeth and are not taking any chances.

A body and a pile of clothes on the banks of the Tigris

A body and a pile of clothes on the banks of the Tigris

Two of the IS fighters are clearly dead. One, most likely a boy, is buried under the rubble of concrete bunker. His small, blackened hand sticks out from mangled remains. Nearby, an older fighter lies in the grass. His eyes are open, but part of his head is missing. He died in the same airstrike that took out the bunker.

But it is the third man, lying in the shadows, further ahead on the path alongside the River Tigris, who has the soldiers worried.

Be careful … Look to his hand, maybe he has a grenade. Go slowly.”

Mohammed

They fire a couple of shots into the prone figure. It does not move.

“He is a son of a bitch, he was hiding. Be careful, be careful,” says one of the soldiers. “I don’t think he has a suicide vest,” says another.

An Iraqi soldier investigates the scene

An Iraqi soldier investigates the scene

They are at the foot of an olive grove, which is serving as the temporary base of the ERD as they push towards west Mosul, the last major redoubt of IS in Iraq.

Up close I look upon the dead man. His right leg is mangled, sliced through to the bone. He appears to have crawled out of the bunker and found a small hiding place in the rocks by the riverside.

Even in death his face is distinctive – a narrow chin and a puckish nose. His beard is wispy. He is more of a boy than a man. Nearby, soldiers find an M16 rifle which is marked as property of the US Government.

Close up of the M16 machine gun

Close up of the M16 machine gun

It is likely to have been among the thousands of weapons and vehicles IS seized from retreating Iraqi forces when it swept through from Syria more than two years previously.

“Adel, Adel, does anyone have ammunition? I want a full magazine,” says a fighter searching the dead man. The M16 now belongs to the man who found it.

“We have to go, it isn’t safe here,” an officer tells me. The men are jumpy and want to return to the base. There are still other IS fighters in the area, they warn.

It is late February and these men are in the midst of the battle of their lives. In three days they made lightning progress across the territory to the south of Mosul. Ahead of them the village of the Al-Buseif, then the ruined airport and the neighbourhoods of the west of the city.

All would fall in rapid succession, but the closer to Mosul they come, the more IS fighters they encounter, and the more bodies end up strewn across the roads and pathways.

It is already clear from the assault on the city’s east – it took 100 days – that IS prepared well for this fight. Mosul was turned into a giant arsenal, with weapons dumps and hideouts in every neighbourhood.

Before we climb back up the hill to the base, I look again on the dead fighters. In the grass beside one, I find a small piece of paper marked with an IS stamp. It is a leave permission slip. On the back, it is smeared with his blood.

IS leave permission slip

IS leave permission slip

The soldiers do one final check of the bodies. On the young man in the shadows, they find some cash – a small amount of Syrian pounds, almost worthless. But in his other pocket, there is something small and far more valuable – a memory card from a mobile phone.

The pictures on it will lead us to uncover fragments of the lives of the dead men, the deep camaraderie among them, their brutality, and their journey through the battle for Mosul. And it will cast light on the dead fighter in the shadows. Who was this young man and what secrets of Islamic State did he leave behind?

His hidden
photos

The photographs begin as bright family snapshots, but soon darken. The young man is seated, with the trace of a smile on his face. He is doe-eyed beside a little girl. Perhaps it is his sister. He holds her close, and she has her index finger raised – the Islamic sign for one true god.

His hair is curly, long and parted in the middle, and as the pictures progress they have been edited. His cheeks and lips turned a girlish pink, the whites of his eyes are touched-up and bright.

A transformation is taking place.

Soon he is in military gear, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, a walkie-talkie in his top pocket.

In another photo, he is asleep. It is almost certainly posed, the intention is to show a warrior at rest.

This is no longer a family album, it’s now a record of a martyr-to-be, a baby-faced suicide attacker, cleansed and ready to sacrifice himself for his cause.

The memory card found on his body has other pictures, too.
There is a group shot of young men and boys. The fighter is not in the frame. Maybe he is behind the camera, taking the shot. I would later learn that most of the men and boys were from Mosul and were part of the Nineveh Fire Support Group, a rear-line, back-up unit. Their time in IS has forged a deep bond between them.

One of the most striking is a photograph of what appears to be the fighter’s brother-in-arms. This man looks older, his hair is long and is also parted. He stares intently at the camera. My eye is drawn to his hands, which are settled on his waist. Curiously, he is wearing black gloves. Underneath those hands, hidden by his shirt, there is a suicide belt. His thumbs rest on its bulge.

The gloves are worn to hide the switch that will detonate the explosives, disguised so that the target does not recognise the threat posed by the smiling young man in khaki, until it is too late.

There are group pictures, too, with older men. Battle-hardened and scarred, their faces are unforgettable. And to some in Mosul, they are familiar.

But the photographs from the phone card have another secret to reveal, one that was right under my nose the entire time.

Secret hideout

The men fighting in the battle for Mosul alternate between two states – the hyper vigilance of the battlefield and a swallowing exhaustion barely touched by a few hours sleep at night.

As a journalist following the men, I slip into the same routine. Rising before dawn, driving to the front, watching as they dodge mortar and rocket fire, avoid roadside bombs and drones. And ducking when IS snipers and fighters open fire.

At night there is barely time for my crew to edit, recharge our equipment, and get some sleep, before heading out again.

Aerial footage of the farmhouse

Aerial footage of the farmhouse

So we do not pay very close attention to our sleeping quarters. In short, it is dark, we are tired, and we have other priorities. All we know is they’ve been checked for booby traps and that we are relatively safe here.

After almost two weeks at the farmhouse, the bodies of the three fighters still lie where they fell. But the dogs and birds are at their corpses. They are increasingly unrecognisable.

As I go through the pictures from the mobile phone card again, the penny drops. These men did not just fight at the farmhouse. It was their home too. I recognise its walls and furnishings in some of the pictures.

Discovering the hideout:

On our last day at the front, with just a few hours to pack and return to the safety of Irbil, I decide to explore. Above my sleeping bag, there is a window. I remove the dusty curtain. Underneath are hidden notices from the caliphate, official IS orders.

They show IS struggling for resources, especially manpower and that the caliphate’s ranks are depleting fast.

On November 11, the Islamic State’s Minister for War calls for more special forces recruits.

By mid-December, new orders are issued to prevent desertion from the front.

Brothers are not allowed to retreat – use of force and commensurate violence allowed”

IS orders

At the back of a room, a blanket covers the wall. I can feel a draught from behind it, so I give it a sharp tug. In a cloud of dust, it falls away and reveals another room, small and bright, with a single window to a vegetable garden, and a bed.

This is the dead men’s sleeping quarters. Their clothes, and much more besides, lie scattered across the floor.

There is a Chelsea Football Club pillowcase lying beside IS wall posters, which list punishments for crimes in the caliphate.

Electrical parts are stripped from sockets and flashlights, presumably for military purposes. In the midst of the mess, something catches my eye. It is an anti-fungal medicine box with a blond-haired baby pictured on the front.

Its eyes are carefully gouged out. This defacement is likely because of an Islamic prohibition of the depiction of the human form.

The room is filthy. Hidden in the piles of material, something important has been left behind. A few pages of detailed handwritten notes and diagrams are carefully folded. They clearly meant a lot to the author, his IS staff number is written in the corner, and in bold English letters, his name: Abu Ali Al Moslaue. Is this the name of the young man depicted in the photos?

The handwriting is neat and careful in the beginning, and the notes are meticulous. They serve an important purpose, life and death, in fact. Abu Ali was learning how to fire mortars. It appears that he was an excellent and a diligent student. But like all schoolboys, he becomes more careless and erratic as the lessons drag on.

But he takes pride in his work. He notes practice runs in converting coordinates from Google Maps to actual targeting coordinates. He draws compass degrees as well as the curved graph course of mortar rounds.

Importantly, in the munitions section and in his own handwriting, he lists “chemical munitions” as a weapon.

There’s been much debate over whether IS has used chemical weapons in Mosul. Here at least, we know they are trained and prepared to use them.

He personalises his notes, sketching a logo for the unit and a makeshift IS stamp, labelled General Support Units.

And there are mottos: “Islamic State: Along the Prophet’s Methodology” and “Islamic State remains, in spite of the haters”.

He used an Education Department exam paper as his notebook, and clearly finds this amusing.

He records the school year as 2016-17, Subject: Mortar, and scores his own paper: “Final Marks: Congratulations. You passed. Total Marks: 100.”

The hideout has even more secrets to reveal. As I search through the detritus something catches my eye.

It looks irrelevant at first. The notebook is in tatters, hanging by a thread. Someone has scribbled the same Islamic poem and a prayer verse several times over a few pages, as if to etch them into memory. There are mistakes, the handwriting is shabby, the structure unappealing. This definitely doesn’t belong to Abu Ali.

But then numbers emerge, names, tables, tabulations and permutations. Whoever scribbled those names and numbers had the authority to dispatch patrols, put men on shifts together, see how many rounds they fired and how many they need for their next outing.

It definitely belongs to someone senior at that farmhouse, possibly the commander of those men. I discover his name is Abu Hashem.

The notebook reveals its secrets – it is a unit’s logbook from the Al-Buseif Air Defence Brigade, a sub-unit of the Nineveh Fire Support Group. They must have all been sharing the same farmhouse.

All in all, Abu Hashem commanded eight men and two vehicles. They formed the bulk of the Al-Buseif Air Defence mobile patrol. They drove a Hyundai pickup truck with a double-barrel anti-air cannon, and another pickup truck with a smaller calibre, single barrel heavy machine gun. Both vehicles were white, which is reportedly the preferred colour for Islamic State combat vehicles because they’re easier to camouflage with dirt and blend into the terrain.

Commander Abu Hashem appears to have been diligent. He meticulously records the sorties, the types of weapons used, the chassis number of his trucks, how many rounds they had, their type, how many rounds fired – even the faulty ones.

Not only was he a good logistician, but he also understood how small units worked. The record shows how he tried to foster and strengthen bonds between his men. Scheduling their lives, Abu Hashem made sure to couple fighters serving on the same vehicle to have meals together.

And so, while he’s having lunch with Abu Riad, his driver, Abu Hafs, the driver of the other vehicle is paired with a gunner, Abu Al-Sham.

The commander, his logbook shows, has clearly put some thought into this. He worked on two possible permutations, crossing off names before putting in a clean draft.

The burden of command must have weighed heavily on Abu Hashem’s mind while commanding his troops. This, however, didn’t soften him up.

Like any seasoned commander, he proved ready to show a tough disciplinary side. In one written order, he tasks one of his subordinates to lead a patrol. “Those who are found lacking must be punished,” he orders. “May Allah reward you with goodness,” wishing him well.

Taking the photos and the bundles of documents with me, I leave the farmhouse and finally Iraq. But for months, the men remain in my head.

Using what I already know about them, would I be able to find out more? Did they have families? What kind of lives had they led?

My search to find out more about the men begins in Mosul. It is early April and the 1st Brigade of Iraq’s ERD forces are deep inside the west of the city.

The farmhouse seems like a lifetime ago. Their new base, a house near the front lines is in a residential neighbourhood.

The steady thump of mortar fire rattles what is left of the windows. Captured IS suspects are being brought here. One man is pulled from a pick-up truck by the fighters.

He has been badly beaten. His T-shirt is covered in blood. It is not clear who hurt him.

It may have been the troops, or it could have been locals exacting revenge on those who had controlled and oppressed them in the proceeding years.

An intelligence major calls me into a back room. “I have someone for you to meet, someone we haven’t shared with anyone else,” he says.

A young, shifty-looking man, slight and dressed like an off-duty soldier comes into the room. Let’s call him Ibrahim.

He fought with IS for two years, but he is not a prisoner. He is a double agent, working for the Iraqi security forces.

I show him the photos that I have brought from the farmhouse.

Quentin speaks to Ibrahim:

“I know them very well,” he says. “Those are fighters. They were with the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Unit. This one was the section’s commander,” he says pointing to one of the older men in the photographs.

“They acted as a support unit for the front-line troops. They would spring into action as soon as they were needed.”

Along with the intelligence major, he confirms the men were mostly from Mosul. Ibrahim reflects on what his membership of IS had done to him, and most likely to the men and boys in the pictures.

I learned how to be tough. How to beat and kill without mercy. Especially with regards to prisoners”

Ibrahim

He notes that men from the Nineveh Fire Support Group lived spartan lives. “You should live like the Prophet, a simple life. A fighter needs very little to survive,” he says.

It is clear from Ibrahim and others that I meet that most of the men and boys in the pictures are dead.

Identifying all the men in the photographs has proved impossible. IS fighters use noms de guerre, but there was another factor at play.

As one member of the Mosul’s special forces team explains, “When IS came they were children, we don’t recognise them as men.”

Long before their advance stalled around Mosul’s old city, Iraqi forces advanced far quicker than expected towards the city’s western side. And it appears it was much faster than the Nineveh Fire Support Group anticipated.

Abu Ali and his brothers in arms had no time to destroy the material in their hideout. Their grasp of operational security was weak.

A slip of paper discovered on the floor of the farmhouse turns out to be coordinates of locations across Mosul.

Using Google Earth maps, I plot the information. I recognise one location – an IS mortar factory that I had visited in November 2016. The other coordinates are mortar storage and production units too, according to Iraq security forces.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, territory assessed as credible on 19 June 2017

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, territory assessed as credible on 19 June 2017

About a dozen men had worked at the factory producing precisely milled mortar shells.

They had burned oil fires through holes in the building roof to hide it from coalition aircraft.

By the time we return to the mortar foundry in April, it is cleared of the shells and returned to commercial use.

Now it is making water tanks and roofing to replace those damaged in the fighting.

In November, people were willing to talk about the IS fighters who made weapons there, but by April, a wariness has settled on east Mosul. Locals may be freed from IS, but it feels like the militants are not very far away. The fear of retribution hangs in the air.

And it becomes easy to understand why when I make my way to the final destination in the journey to retrace the men of the Nineveh Fire Support Group.

In amongst the papers and documents I retrieved from the farmhouse are a number of religious books.

All are marked with the stamp of a mosque in east Mosul – one bearing the name of an imam has been dedicated to the young men.

Mosque of the believers

The Al Mou’meneen Mosque is not far from the mortar factory, and it is here that the group from the farmhouse prayed and brought terror to the local neighbourhood.

The mosque is modest and mostly without adornment. It is a bright spring day, and children are making their way home from school. But I have a sense of trepidation as I knock on the metal door. Is the imam who dedicated the book to the fighters still inside?

The caretaker answers and welcomes me inside. I take off my shoes and he sends a boy to find the imam. I sit waiting in the sunshine, drinking some sweet tea, listening to the children playing outside.

The imam who signed the book is long gone, he fled with IS. So the caretaker calls to find the man who led prayers before IS took control of Mosul.

The imam arrives, his name is Fares Fadel Ibrahim. He is younger than I expected, broad-shouldered and with a quiet confidence.

I show him the pictures of the fighters and he recognises most of them.

Quentin speaks to the imam:

He is nervous, though, and I soon discover why. “Please,” he asks, “Do not film me looking at the pictures.” Why is he afraid of these young men?

The fighters, he says, moved their entire families into this neighbourhood. Most were Iraqi, but there were foreigners, from Syria, Morocco and elsewhere, he says. They lived among them for more than a year and fled in November 2016 when Iraqi security forces advanced closer to the area.

Mullah Fares is, he explains, the temporary imam until the Department of Religious Affairs appoints someone permanently.

That said, it is clear that this is his mosque. He has prayed here since he was a boy – since the mosque was built in 1980. And then he preached there alongside the permanent imam, until IS came.

“What happened to the permanent imam,” I ask. “They murdered him,” he replies. And replaced him with their own preacher – the man who dedicated the book to the fighters. He called them “beloved darlings”.

As we sit on the carpet together in the prayer hall, he explains the story of IS in Mosul and his neighbourhood. They corrupted the city, he says, and worse still, the world’s view of Islam.

At first they treated people well, he explains. “They came with respect and appreciation and then their true intentions appeared.”

For IS, the mosques are a means of control and of recruitment.

Mullah Fares was given the option – join IS or stay at home and only return to the mosque he loved, to pray. So, he returned home.

They came in the name of faith, the residents of Mosul love faith, so anybody that comes to us as a person of faith we welcome it. But the reality was one thing and truth was another.”

Fares Fadel Ibrahim

IS set about a purge. Other preachers were accused of being “delaying salafies,” and were imprisoned for a month, or longer. When released they promised never to lead prayer again. Others, like the Al Mou’meneen’s permanent imam, were killed.

Looking at the pictures of the young men from the Nineveh Fire Support Group, Mullah Fares pauses for a moment, then says: “The power is with the person who holds the gun, even if he is very small and young. Like the young men from ISIS [IS] who killed some strong and old men of ours, like the imam here in the mosque, who was killed by children.”

It would soon be time for afternoon prayers and we have to finish the interview. Dozens of curious children are crowded around the mosque’s door, eager to get inside. But before Mullah Fares finishes, he has one more thing to say, about the young men who held this city.

They distorted the image of Islam, and this thinking will remain.”

Fares Fadel Ibrahim

He continues, “My dear brother, we are by nature people who love faith, young or old, we love Islam and Muslims. Even the prophet, while he encouraged invading different places, he ordered his men not to kill a child, a woman, or an old man, and not to cut down one tree. So where were these values of Islam?”

And with that, he stands up and begins the call to prayer. From the sunshine outside, the waiting children burst through the doors and get ready for their lessons.

The three dead fighters on the banks of the Tigris were little more than children. In fact, one was still was a child. The Nineveh Fire Support Group were enthusiastic in their campaign of destruction and terror. They helped turn parts of their city into a ruin, and furthered the corruption of their faith.

Did they die happy, knowing they had served their cause as was asked of them, I wonder.

They died as fighters, but they died as fools. Pity should be reserved for the people they once lived among, who were abused and killed as the young men sacrificed all around them, for their caliphate.

When they left Mullah Fares’ neighbourhood, they said to the people, “You did not take care of the caliphate, so you do not deserve it.”

But the truth of their cause was revealed when IS went into homes and destroyed them, killing families. IS and the Nineveh Fire Support Group had no love for Mosul nor its people. The young fighters were willing recruits, but they were also manipulated.

Quentin studies the photos:

As I retrace their steps through Mosul, the thing that strikes me most of all is their youth. It surprised almost everyone we spoke to. For IS, a fighter is anyone above the age of 15, but some of their recruits are much younger.

IS has had support in Mosul, but it inflated that support by weaponising children. Taking the young and the gullible and sacrificing them for its malicious cause.

In Mosul, IS is on the brink of defeat. The bodies by the riverbank are gone – carried away by dogs and other animals.

There is no longer any trace there of the young men. But their legacy of turmoil and destruction remains. It stretches far beyond Mosul, and far beyond the flow of the River Tigris.

IS destroys Mosul mosque where leader Baghdadi declared caliphate

“Islamic State” militants have blown up the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul where their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a self-styled caliphate in 2014. It comes as Iraqi forces push into Mosul’s Old City.

Watch video00:38

‘IS’ destroys Mosul’s landmark al-Nuri mosque

The so-called “Islamic State” (IS) destroyed Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri mosque and its iconic leaning minaret late Wednesday, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Defense.

“The Daesh (IS) terror gangs committed another historical crime by blowing up the al-Nuri mosque and its historical al-Hadba minaret,” the Iraqi military statement said.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making a speech Reuters TV/File PhotoReclusive IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the “caliphate” at the mosque in 2014

The landmark, also known as Mosul’s Great Mosque, is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq – and named himself “caliph” – in mid-2014 shortly after the city was captured by the militants. It was the only time he has appeared in public.

Iraq’s prime minister said the demolition was IS effectively admitting defeat.

“It’s an official declaration of defeat,” Haider al-Abadi said in a statement issued hours after news broke of the mosque’s destruction.

Amaq, the IS news agency, blamed the destruction on a US airstrike. But a spokesman for the US-lead coalition denied striking the mosque. “We did not strike in that area,” coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Reuters.

“The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS,” said a statement from the commander of the coalition’s ground component, US Army Major General Joseph Martin, using another acronym for IS.

A video shared on social media by a Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal showed the minaret collapsing vertically in a vast billow of sand and dust, as a woman lamented in the background, saying “the minaret, the minaret, the minaret.”

Video released by Iraq’s military appears to show Nouri Mosque in Mosul being detonated by explosives.

Iraqi troops backed by US airpower  launched a push earlier this week to drive out IS fighters surrounded in Mosul’s Old City, after retaking several neighborhoods in western Mosul over the past few weeks.

The last militants are holed up in the Old City along with an estimated 100,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.

More than 850,000 people have been displaced since the offensive to retake Iraq’s second-largest city began eight months ago.

Watch video01:45

Mosul: Fleeing ‘Islamic State’

aw/cmk (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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Taliban storm police headquarter in eastern Afghanistan

Taliban gunmen and a suicide bomber have attacked a police headquarters in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least five officers and injuring 22. The assault comes as the US is preparing to send more troops to the country.

Afghanistan Selbstmordanschlag (Reuters/S.Peiwand)

The attack began Sunday morning when a suicide bomber detonated a car laden with explosives at the main entrance of the police headquarters in the eastern city of Gardez in Paktia province.

The blast cleared the way for the other six attackers who stormed the police station and targeted Afghan officers.

Najib Danish, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said two gunmen were immediately killed by Afghan police, while the other others held out for hours. It took Afghan security forces most of the day to kill the last gunmen.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.

“Around 6:20 (local time) this morning, a martyr attack was conducted by our mujahideen against a special forces base in Gardez, Paktia,” Mujahid said.

“First a car bomb detonated then our mujahideen entered the building, opening fire on police,” he added.

In April, the Taliban launched their “spring offensive” against Afghan and international forces stationed in the war-torn country.

Read: Opinion: Observe and reflect on Afghanistan

Deteriorating security situation

The so-called “Islamic State” (IS) militant group and the Taliban have launched numerous attacks in Afghanistan in the past few months, with experts saying that President Ashraf Ghani’s government is failing to protect citizens.

Read: ‘China and Russia want US out of Afghanistan’

“The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated further. Afghan security forces control only about 57 percent of the country’s territory. Around 2.5 million people live in areas controlled by the Taliban and nine million more live in contested areas,” Nicole Birtsch, an Afghanistan researcher at the Berlin-based think tank, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told DW.

“The number of civilian victims, including many children, remains high. And many people are internally displaced due to the fighting between government forces and the Taliban,” she added.

Sunday’s attack came as the Pentagon is getting ready to send some 4,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan.

The latest wave of US troops will mainly be deployed to train and advise Afghan forces, following warnings by top US commanders in the region that the local military was facing a resurgent Taliban and a rising threat posed by IS.

Read: Afghan soldier attacks US troops near Mazar-i-Sharif

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Quadriga – Afghanistan – No way forward?

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Who is the ‘Islamic State’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

From domestic insurgent group to global terror organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has transformed the “Islamic State” into what it is today. Amid reports of his death, DW examines the life of the world’s most wanted man.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Bildnis in Flammen (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Swarup)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali Mohammed al-Badri, rose to international notoriety in 2014 as the leader of the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) militant group ravaging parts of Syria and Iraq.

On Friday, Russia’s defense ministry announced it conducted airstrikes in May that killed several leaders of the militant group, adding that al-Baghdadi may also have died during the assault.

While his adolescence is shrouded in narratives of piety and reticence, the rise of al-Baghdadi as one of the world’s most recognizable criminals has its notable beginning in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Before the ‘Islamic State’

In response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Baghdadi formed a militant group to join a growing insurgency against occupation.

In 2004, al-Baghdadi was detained by US forces and held in both the controversial Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca detention centers. He reportedly spent more time in Abu Ghraib, an infamous facility known for torture committed by American forces in Iraq.

Al-Baghdadi was released later that year with a large group of low-level prisoners. Several media outlets have claimed that the militant leader had been held by US forces for much longer, however, these allegations have not been substantiated by government records.

In 2006, al-Baghdadi’s troop of insurgents joined others to form the Mujahideen Shura Council. The alliance of several Islamist militant groups later disbanded and formed an organization calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq, commonly referred to at the time as al Qaeda in Iraq.

Bildergalerie zum ARD Special über Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi IS AnführerPeople who knew al-Baghdadi have described him as an individual who clung to religious teachings in his youth

‘Global terrorist’

It is unclear how al-Baghdadi rose through the ranks of al Qaeda’s Iraqi division but in 2010, he was declared the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq following the assassination of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (no relation), who led the group since its formation in 2006.

As the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Baghdadi was responsible for the group’s attacks in Baghdad and surrounding areas, which included high-profile suicide bombings targeting Iraqi security services and Shiites.

Following the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, al-Baghdadi vowed reprisal attacks against the US and its allies in Iraq.

Read more: ‘Islamic State’ gold remains hard to trace

In October 2011, the US state department announced that al-Baghdadi, referring to him by his birth name al-Badri, had been deemed a “specially designated global terrorist.”

Since then, the US has maintained sanctions against him along with a multi-million-dollar reward for information leading to his capture or death.

Break with al Qaeda

In 2013, al-Baghdadi announced the Islamic State in Iraq’s expansion into Syria. He claimed that the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, had joined forces with his group, and as such, announced the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (known variously as IS, ISIL, ISIS).

Read more: Raqqa: The human cost of degrading the ‘Islamic State’

Al-Baghdadi’s announcement that the Nusra Front had joined his group was contested by the organization’s leader, who appealed to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri decreed that al-Baghdadi should remain in Iraq and not pursue activities in Syria, a decision al-Baghdadi effectively ignored and spelled the end of the Islamic State in Iraq’s allegiance to al Qaeda.

In January 2014, IS took control of Raqqa and expelled the Nusra Front from the Syrian city. The capture of Raqqa pushed al Qaeda to disavow IS in February, saying it “is not a brand of the al Qaeda group.”

From caliph to shadows

IS rose to notoriety in June 2014, when it launched a blitzkrieg campaign and captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, culminating in the ransacking and occupation of Mosul.

On June 29, speaking from a pulpit in the historic Great Mosque of Mosul, al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a worldwide caliphate and shorted the group’s name to Islamic State.

Read more: Mosul: the last stand for ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq

However, religious leaders, mainstream scholars of Islam and the wider Muslim community has repudiated the re-establishment of the Islamic institution and al-Baghdadi’s claim to be caliph.

Since the public announcement, al-Baghdadi has effectively drifted into the shadows of the so-called caliphate, where he continues to orchestrate the development and expansion of the militant group as a terror phenomenon that spans the globe. With his possible death still unconfirmed, it remains to be seen what impact this could have on the Islamic State.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a worldwide caliphate from a historic mosque in Mosul, a city in which his duties as a top leader in al-Qaeda focused onAl-Baghdadi announced the creation of a worldwide caliphate from a historic mosque in Mosul

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‘Islamic State’ kills hundreds of fleeing civilians in Mosul, says UN

The UN says it has credible reports that “Islamic State” (IS) has killed more than 231 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul city since May 26. The UN body is also investigating civilian deaths in anti-IS airstrikes.

Irak - Flucht aus Mossul (picture alliance/AP/dpa/M. Alleruzzo)

A statement from the office of the United Nations human rights chief said Thursday the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) group had killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians trying to flee Mosul.

The UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had on Tuesday accused the militants of killing 163 civilians on June 1 in the city’s al-Shifa neighborhood.

The Thursday statement adds two new allegations, including a May 26 incident where IS reportedly shot dead 27 people, including five children.

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The UN’s rights office said the jihadists slaughtered 41 civilians in the same neighborhood on June 3.

“Credible reports indicate that more than 231 civilians attempting to flee western Mosul have been killed since May 26, including at least 204 over three days last week alone,” the statement said.

“Shooting children as they try to run to safety with their families – there are no words of condemnation strong enough for such despicable acts.”

Iraqi forces retook eastern Mosul from IS in January and last month began a push to capture the remaining parts of the city. Rights groups and monitors say some 200,000 people are trapped in western Mosul.

There are also reports that several May 31 air strikes from the anti-IS coalition killed between 50 and 80 people in the IS-controlled Mosul neighborhood, Zanjili. Zeid said the UN was also investigating these killings.

The UN rights chief urged the coalition “to ensure that their operations comply fully with international humanitarian law and that all possible measures are taken to avoid the loss of civilian lives.”

Watch video01:42

Civilians killed while fleeing ‘IS’ in Mosul

shs/jm (Reuters, AFP)

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Afghans rail against Kabul, Islamabad over deadly blast

Anti-Pakistan sentiment runs high in Afghanistan following the huge bomb blast in Kabul’s diplomatic area that claimed over 90 lives. The Afghan government blamed Pakistan-based militant Haqqani Network for the attack.

Aghanistan Kabul Protest Demonstration (Reuters/M. Ismail)

“For how long we will have to tolerate this bloodshed in our country?” a Kabul resident said Thursday, a day after a deadly vehicle bomb killed and wounded hundreds of people in the capital’s highly secure area.

“I have lost my brother in the blast, and the government is constantly failing to provide us with security,” he added.

More than 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Kabul on Thursday and Friday, many carrying pictures of bomb victims, chanting slogans against the leaders of the national unity government –  President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Protesters demanded answers from the government over the perceived intelligence failure leading to the attack.

As a demonstration in the city turned violent, police fired into the crowd, killing at least three protesters, according to local media reports.

No militant group claimed responsibility for the Wednesday bombing, but the Taliban and self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) groups have staged large-scale attacks in Kabul in the past.

Read: Opinion: Observe and reflect on Afghanistan

After initial investigations, Afghan authorities said Pakistan-based militant Haqqani Network carried out the attack, and that the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) security agency was also responsible. A source close to the Afghan presidential palace said that President Ghani had signed an order to execute 11 imprisoned Haqqani Network and Taliban convicts following the attack.

Apart from the Afghan government, a number of independent Afghanistan experts and Western officials have pointed to the ISI-Haqqani nexus.

Sediq Siddiqui, the spokesperson for Afghanistan’s interior ministry, told media the role of Pakistan’s ISI had been established in Kabul explosion. “We have nailed Pakistan’s ISI role (in Kabul blast). Afghanistan expects Pakistan to crack down on Haqqani Network. The attack will surely impact ties between the two (Afghanistan, Pakistan) countries,” Siddiqui said.

Rahmatullah Nabil, the former chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security intelligence agency, alleges that Pakistan has been “playing a deadly game in Afghanistan.”

“Pakistan wants to find new support for its proxy jihadists. It also wants to convey a message to the US that without Pakistan’s help, Washington is going to fail in Afghanistan,” Nabil told DW.

Read: Angela Merkel announces temporary halt on Afghan deportations after Kabul bombing

Pakistan on Thursday dismissed the allegations that its intelligence agencies were behind Wednesday’s truck attack. “We reject the baseless allegations. The accusatory approach is unhelpful towards efforts for peace,” Foreign Office spokesperson Nafees Zakria said at a weekly news briefing in Islamabad.

Watch video01:38

Grief and outrage in Kabul

Pakistan and the Haqqanis

It is not the first time that Afghan officials have accused Islamabad of giving Islamists logistical and military support to launch attacks on Afghan soil. Afghanistan and Western countries have long accused Pakistan of distinguishing between “good and bad jihadists” – the ones that attack Pakistani soldiers, and the ones that it allegedly uses as proxies in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan continues to deny it is backing Haqqani Network, which is largely based in its Waziristan region close to the Afghan border. Pakistan no longer believes in separating the “good” and “bad” Taliban, a senior government official said in 2015.

Last year, President Ashraf Ghani’s government blamed Haqqani Network for a major terrorist attack on the headquarters of an Afghan security agency in Kabul. The attack near the US embassy and government ministries killed at least 64 people and wounded over 300.

The attack infuriated the Afghan government to an extent that President Ghani had to say that his country “no longer expects Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table” – a clear indication that the Afghan authorities no longer trust Islamabad in the fight against Islamic militants.

Mujahed Andarabi, the head of news for the Kabul-based 1TV, said the Wednesday bombing was part of a “big game” being played by the Taliban, Haqqani Network and some regional countries, including Pakistan. The Afghan government needs a clear-cut approach toward Pakistan, he underlined.

Andarabi says there is an international consensus against Pakistan, which is being isolated regionally and globally. Ghani’s government should use this opportunity to make Afghanistan more independent, he stressed.

Read: Iranians show solidarity with Afghan neighbors after Kabul attack

Afghan expert Miagul Wasiq believes the success of the Afghan peace process largely depends on Pakistan’s role. If Pakistan really wants to bring the Taliban into negotiations, it would be impossible for the militants to turn them down, he told DW.

“It is clear that the Taliban leaders are based in the Pakistani cities of Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta. Pakistan hasn’t forced them to shun their activities and stop using its soil,” said Wasiq. “If Pakistani officials stop backing them, I am sure the militants will have no option but to join the peace talks.”

But Naufil Shahrukh, a researcher at the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), says that Pakistan has practically no influence over the Taliban leadership. “Such preconceived notions should be cleared before any meaningful initiative can take root,” he told DW. “We must admit that the Taliban are still a potent force in Afghanistan. They control, and have public support, in several Afghan provinces.”

History of mistrust

The ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan have never been worse. Apart from allegations and counter-allegations that the other country is backing armed militants, the two neighboring countries have been engaged in sporadic border clashes.

Amid worsening ties with Afghanistan, Pakistan announced in March it had started building a fence along the volatile Afghan-Pakistani border. Islamabad said the move was aimed at restricting the movement of Islamist militants that cross over the porous border and launch attacks on Pakistani soil.

In fact, there has been a long history of mistrust between the two nations.

“History has proven that Pakistan wants a weak government in Afghanistan so it can remain as the only mediator for the crisis in its neighborhood for the international community,” Ahmad Zia Ferozpur, a lecturer at the Balkh University, told DW, adding that the only time Pakistan was happy with Afghanistan was during the Taliban regime.

“In 2001, Islamabad agreed to join the campaign against the Taliban due to international pressure but started a double game of supporting the Islamist insurgency and the international effort in Afghanistan simultaneously,” Ferozpur underlined.

But he emphasized that Afghanistan’s anger is directed against the Pakistani military and the ISI, not its people,

According to Sadaf Gheyasi, an Afghan journalist and activist, social media has played a big role in how the Afghans see Pakistan now. “The Afghan government has provided ample proof of Pakistani interference in Afghanistan through social media,” she said.

But things can change now under President Ghani’s government, believes Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan parliamentarian. “What we ask from Pakistan is not impossible: We want Islamabad to sign a transit agreement with Afghanistan and stop interfering in Afghanistan’s security,” she told DW. “Afghanistan has tried all options with Pakistan. If Pakistan does not change its policies, our last option will be to consult the United Nation’s Security Council,” she warned.

Additional reporting by Ahmad Hakimi and Masood Saifullah.

Watch video01:40

Truck blast rocks Kabul diplomatic district

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Civilian death toll rises to 484 from US-led coalition strikes in Iraq & Syria

A new Operation Inherent Resolve report has upped the official civilian death toll of the US-led aerial bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq by more than a third, confirming 484 civilian deaths – while activists claim the figure is several times higher.

“To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR [Combined Joint Task Force] assesses that, it is more likely than not, at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve,” a statement released on Friday reads.

The coalition analyzes each individual report and bases its official civilian death toll only on those it finds “credible.”

According to the coalition, in the period between August 2014 and April 2017, a total of 21,035 airstrikes were carried out against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). This figure breaks down into 44,330 separate engagements.

“Although the Coalition takes extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties, in some incidents casualties are unavoidable. Sixteen reports were assessed to be credible resulting in the unintentional death of 132 civilians,” the statement added.

The new report effectively upped the total civilian death toll by more than a third, as last month’s report acknowledged 352 civilian deaths.

The incident which contributed the most to the drastic increase in the official death toll was an airstrike carried out on March 17. A separate probe was launched into the incident, during which “101 civilians sheltered in the bottom floors of the structure, and four civilians in a neighboring structure were killed.”

A coalition report stated that air support was called in against two snipers targeting the Iraqi forces from a rooftop. The blame for the massacre, however, was shifted on to the terrorists, as the coalition claimed that the airstrike ignited ISIS-planted explosives, which led to secondary explosions and the collapse of the structure.

“The American people and the American military will never get used to civilian casualties. And we… will fight against that every way we can possibly bring our intelligence and our tactics to bear,” US Defense Secretary James Mattis told CBS last Sunday, while commenting on the March incident.

Mattis stated that the coalition has “already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove [IS terrorists] from one position to another in Iraq and Syria” and pursued “annihilation tactics where we surround them.” While the new “tactics” inevitably leads to civilian casualties, they are needed for “accelerating the tempo” of the anti-terrorist campaign.

“Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” Mattis said, adding that the coalition was doing “everything humanly possible consistent with military necessity” to “avoid civilian casualties at all costs.”

Independent researchers indicate that the numbers might be a magnitude higher.

“It’s like a scandalous understatement. I would ratchet up those figures by several orders of magnitude,” author and historian Gerald Horne told RT.

Calling civilian casualties a “fact of life” trivializes them and violates international laws, Horne said.

“Clearly, [Mattis’s statement] was a public relations disaster. That’s to say that expressing such an attitude basically bespeaks a cavalier approach to international law which look disdainfully at the idea of civilian casualties as some kind of collateral damage as Pentagon puts it. But, I’m afraid that’s the state of play as we speak.”