A brother of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi travelled several times to Istanbul, Europe’s largest city, from northern Syria in the months before the terrorist chief’s death, Iraqi intelligence officials said.
Juma, one Al Baghdadi’s three brothers, was one of his most trusted messengers to deliver and retrieve information about the group’s operations in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, two officials said.
The hunt for the elusive architect of ISIS, a man once known as the “invisible sheikh”, ended on October 26 in a dramatic, covert US special forces raid on his isolated villa in the north-western Syrian border village of Barisha, in Idlib province.
He killed himself by detonating his explosive vest when backed into a tunnel with no escape, US President Donald Trump said.
Now, The National can reveal details about the movements of a key member of Al Baghdadi’s inner circle and how he made several 2,300-kilometre round trips deep into the territory of a Nato member.
Security officials say the terror chief used an old-fashioned militant method to evade detection while directing the group from the shadows, as western and Middle East security services combined to find a trail that could lead them to one of the world’s most wanted men.
“We were watching somebody who was acting as a messenger to Al Baghdadi and he was travelling frequently to Turkey and back,” a senior Iraqi intelligence official said. “He was Al Baghdadi’s brother.”
Iraqi security services first detected Juma, who is believed to still be alive, crossing the Syrian-Turkish border at the end of 2018 before he appeared in Istanbul.
ISIS militants or sympathisers had attacked a nightclub in the city on New Year’s Eve, tourists in its historic Sultanahmet Square near Hagia Sophia, and its now-closed Ataturk International Airport.
Iraqi security services worked with US intelligence in watching Juma inside Turkish territory, the officials said.
Spokespeople for the Pentagon and US-led coalition to defeat ISIS said they would not comment on matters of intelligence.
The office of the Turkish presidency and the Turkish Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
An Iraqi intelligence agent who worked on the tracking operation said Juma continued to reappear in the following months, until his last recorded visit to Istanbul in April.
He is then believed to have returned to north-western Syria, months before the location of his brother’s safe house was revealed.
It is unlikely he was smuggled across the border, the agent said, but rather moved across it freely.
The Iraqi operatives cultivated an informant in Istanbul who would become privy to details about Juma’s Istanbul trips and what was exchanging hands on behalf of Al Baghdadi.
“Juma was in contact with a guy in Turkey who was meeting our source inside Turkey,” said the agent, who dealt directly with the informer’s handler.
Juma made several trips to Istanbul to meet that contact, the agent said.
The source met a courier who would hand packages to a middleman, who would then pass them on to Al Baghdadi’s brother for delivery to the leader in northern Syria.
The contents of the packages show how Al Baghdadi persisted in directing the group and the lengths to which he went to stay abreast of its progress without detection during years in hiding, months after the loss of all Syrian and Iraqi cities ISIS once controlled.
“He was delivering messages from ISIS commanders in Iraq – the state of their forces, money, logistics, routes,” the agent said of the courier. “He was in contact with commanders here.”
But it was not only Iraq in which Al Baghdadi showed an interest. Juma was also given the task of “passing on messages and bringing messages back and forth to the ISIS guys inside Turkey”, the senior intelligence official said.
The Iraqis and Americans conducted joint intelligence work on tracking Juma for five months, the official said, but it remained unclear if he was handing the packages to Al Baghdadi in person, and if it was done in Idlib.
They would lose track of him when he entered the Syrian province where Al Baghdadi was eventually found.
The officials became confused as to why his trail would end in Idlib because they believed Al Baghdadi was hiding in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
They wondered how Juma could cross territory held by the Syrian regime or the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Arab-Kurdish coalition that led the fight against ISIS, to deliver messages to his brother.
“We tracked him going across the border but then we were losing track,” the intelligence official said.
“From Turkey he travelled south through Idlib but it seems like he never travelled further down..
“Now we think that he just came across five clicks away from the border to meet Al Baghdadi. We don’t know if the Turks knew this or not.”
When you cook pasta, you drain it in a colander. Turkey’s borders have unfortunately been like this for a long time.
Former high-ranking Turkish military officer
It is believed Al Baghdadi moved to Idlib in spring, about the time of the offensive to wrest Baghouz, ISIS’s last pocket, from its remaining fighters.
But the Iraqi claims indicate he could have moved there before then, or at least somewhere closer to Idlib and further away from eastern Syria than previously believed.
Little is known about Juma. No photo of him is publicly available and there are no details of his appearance, age, current whereabouts or even his last name.
As attempts to track his movements continue, much of the information about him remains classified.
US special forces captured two men in the Barisha raid on Al Baghdadi’s compound, but it is unclear if Juma was one of them, or if he was in the safe house at the time.
The Iraqi officials said they did not have clear identification of who was killed or knowledge of who was captured in the raid, which was carried out by US Delta Force commandos.
Juma, a member of the same pious family from the Iraq city of Samarra, on the east bank of the Tigris, practised an ultra-conservative version of Islam even before Al Baghdadi, Abu Ahmad, a former associate of the ISIS leader, said in 2015.
At one point, he is believed to have become his brother’s bodyguard and was the closest to him of the three siblings.
But the officials’ account reveals that, at least in recent months, he served as the carrier of Al Baghdadi’s orders to key ISIS figures in Turkey and Iraq.
His methods of travel from northern Syria to Istanbul and back, and the route he took, remain unknown.
But that a top member of ISIS could commute to a major European city freely to meet other members will again raise questions about Turkish security services and what they knew of Al Baghdadi’s final months, and the movements of his closest associates.
Accusations against Ankara have not been supported by hard evidence, but many in security circles point to a passive attitude in the Turkish security apparatus towards ISIS, which has allowed it to build sophisticated networks inside the country.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing criticism after Al Baghdadi was found so close to the Turkish border.
It also stands accused of emboldening ISIS with its offensive against the Syrian Kurds in north-eastern Syria, using rebel proxies accused of war crimes.
That offensive, which Ankara said was to quash a threat of terrorism from Kurdish militants, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
“It is impossible for the Turkish intelligence that Turkey does not know of his presence 5 to 7 kilometres away from the Turkish border,” a former high-ranking Turkish military officer said.
Turkey on Tuesday said it had captured Al Baghdadi’s 65-year-old sister, Rasmiya Awad, near the Syrian town of Azaz.
But former officials said she probably had little to do with the group’s operations and it was an attempt by Ankara to appear to be working against the group to avoid criticism.
“For the Turkish National Intelligence, or Turkish police, ISIS are not the real enemy,” said Ahmet Yayla, a former Turkish counter-terrorism police chief and now a fellow at the George Washington University’s programme on extremism.
“They do not seriously look for these people, but Erdogan is in a position where he is trying to prove that he is fighting against ISIS.
“That is the reason they are bragging about his sister who is 65 and most probably doesn’t have much to do with the issues there or what he is doing, but they are making a huge propaganda of it in the Turkish media.”
One theory about Al Baghdadi hiding only kilometres from the Turkish border is that he was trying to move his family to the country. “This is not unknown among Islamic State officials and leaders,” according to Aymenn Al Tamimi, a prominent researcher on the modus operandi of Syrian extremist groups.
On Juma’s apparent freedom to travel, Mr Yayla expressed reservations that someone so close to Al Baghdadi could have made such a long journey to Istanbul to deliver or retrieve messages without being detected, or had chosen it as a location for meetings instead of closer Turkish border cities like Gaziantep or Sanliurfa.
“How come Turkey did not stop this person? It just doesn’t add up,” said Mr Yayla. “It is risky for someone like him to go to Istanbul. This is a strange world, anything can happen, but I wouldn’t expect such a crucial mistake from someone like him.”
Yet Istanbul may have offered a more likely location for ISIS’s senior leadership to remain undetected compared to well-known extremist hotbeds in southern Turkey.
“Istanbul has always been a relatively safe area to travel. There are many refugees. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd,” the Iraqi agent said.
In a city of at least 15 million people, “you can expect a degree of anonymity”, said a former Western intelligence chief. “You’re not under scrutiny – everybody is there.”
In smaller, southern hubs such as Gaziantep, it “would be much harder to be sure that you weren’t being followed or spotted”.
For a Syrian, Iraqi or someone of similar appearance who doesn’t have a criminal record and who has the right papers, travelling through Turkey “is not a big problem”, said Guido Steinberg, senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and former counter-extremism adviser to German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
“Although it’s a thousand kilometres, for the Turks it’s not considered to be a long distance. You enter the bus and that’s it. You’ve got direct connections to Istanbul from every city.”
In Turkey, ISIS has a leader of its Emni intelligence service, responsible for the group’s foreign operations, and thousands of supporters developing networks that have made it easy to move people and money throughout the country, Mr Yayla said. So, it may have made more sense for Al Baghdadi to use another lieutenant for the job.
But Juma became “one of the few people trusted by” Al Baghdadi, according to the Iraqi agent. As ISIS’s territory and leadership figures began to dwindle, so did Al Baghdadi’s reliance on his remaining commanders and foot soldiers, figures who may have arrived in Iraq or Syria only six years ago.
“It seems clear now that towards the end, Al Baghdadi only trusted some very close family members,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert on ISIS and senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London. “It also seems to be the case that key pieces of info that led to his capture also came from the people he placed his trust in towards the end.”
Even though he was being traced by other security services, Juma’s limited profile could have helped him to evade detection by Turkish security services while travelling through the country, said Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
“I assume they have the family network mapped out but it’s not Al Baghdadi himself. So how well known were his relatives? What did he look like?”
The trailing of Juma did not lead to Al Baghdadi’s attempted capture. An informant cultivated by the Syrian Kurds inside Al Baghdadi’s inner circle and several crucial arrests of his associates would prove to be his downfall. But the tracking of Juma reveals yet another strand of intelligence that security services were following in the hope of capturing Baghdadi.
The use of a courier is a tried and tested terrorist method of evading detection, one of many used by extremist leaders in a bid to operate under the radar to continue their activities. It was one mastered by former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who would send confidants long distances with USB drives to internet cafes to pass on information. Since then, militant evasion tactics have moved from email drafts to secure email services and on to encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal.
Al Baghdadi became obsessed with secrecy, turning to handwritten notes or even word of mouth to send messages, and at times dressing as a shepherd, according to his detained brother-in-law Mohammed Ali Sajit, who gave an interview to Al Arabiya last week. Those who visited him were on occasion blindfolded on the drive to his location, while others were forced to remove their wristwatches and hand over their phones. Going dark, like bin Laden did for 10 years, can be easy, but terrorist leaders come unstuck in their failure to reconcile their need for stealth with their need to communicate as heads of these organisations, says Jason Burke, an expert on extremism.
“You can go off grid and stay off grid, but it’s difficult to communicate,” he said. “Those who are looking for you are basically guessing. But if you need to trust somebody [to courier], they are going to be identifiable.”
Yet the Iraqis and Americans did not move on Juma. They hoped he would lead them to Al Baghdadi’s location, the same way that bin Laden was tracked to his Abbottabad compound in 2011.
“In this case, the brother would not have been the target, he was just a means to the target. I think it’s entirely understandable that you might let him run and see what turns up,” said the former Western intelligence chief.
“Then, you can go on from there and see what he was doing at either end.”
Even though this was the decision in the case of Juma, the ease with which he crossed into Turkey, like many lower level ISIS members before him, will likely give Western and regional security services cause for concern, whether Ankara had knowledge of his trips or not.
“When you cook pasta, you drain it in a colander,” said the former Turkish general. “Turkey’s borders have unfortunately been like this for a long time.”
Murat Yildiz contributed reporting from Istanbul.