In his last months on the run, Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was agitated, fearful of traitors, sometimes disguised as a shepherd, sometimes hiding underground, always dependent on a shrinking circle of confidants.
Associates paint a picture of a man obsessed with his security and well-being and trying to find safety in towns and deserts in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border as the extremists’ domains crumbled.
In the end, the brutal leader once hailed as “caliph” left former IS areas completely, slipping into hostile territory in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province run by the radical group’s al-Qaida-linked rivals.
There, he blew himself up during an Oct 26 raid by US special forces on his heavily fortified safe house.
For months, he kept a Yazidi teen as a slave, and she told The Associated Press how he brought her along as he moved, traveling with a core group of up to seven close associates.
Months ago, he delegated most of his powers to a senior deputy who is likely the man announced by the group as his successor.
The Yazidi girl, who was freed in a US-led raid in May, said al-Baghdadi first tried to flee to Idlib in late 2017.
She said one night she was loaded into a three-vehicle convoy that included the IS leader, his wife and his security entourage, headed for the province. The convoy reached a main road but then turned around, apparently fearing it would come under attack, said the girl, who was 17 at the time.
For about a week they stayed in the southeastern Syrian town of Hajin, near the Iraqi border. Then they moved north to Dashisha, another border town in Syria within IS-held territory.
There, the Yazidi teen stayed for four months at the home of al-Baghdadi’s father-in-law, a close aide named Abu Abdullah al-Zubaie. Al-Baghdadi would visit her there frequently and rape her and at times beat her, the teen said.
He would only move at night, wearing sneakers and covering his face, always with around five security men who addressed him as “hajji” or “sheikh,” she said. The AP does not identify victims of sexual assault.
“When I asked him anything, he would not give me an answer for security reasons. Not everyone knew where he was,” she said.
In the spring of 2018, she was given to another man, who took her out of Dashisha. That was the last time she saw al-Baghdadi, though he sent her a piece of jewelry as a gift, the teen said.
It appears al-Baghdadi then moved from place to place in eastern Syria for the next year as one IS stronghold after another fell to US-backed Kurdish-led forces, before heading to Idlib sometime in the spring.
During that time, al-Baghdadi was a “nervous wreck,” pacing up and down and complaining of treason and infiltrations among his “walis,” or governors of the group’s self-declared provinces, his brother-in-law, Mohamad Ali Sajit, said in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV aired last week.
“This is all treason,” Sajit recalled al-Baghdadi shouting.
Sajit, an Iraqi who was married to another of al-Zubaie’s daughters, was arrested by Iraqi authorities in June. He said he saw al-Baghdadi several times over 18 months, starting in Hajin in late 2017.
The last time was in the desert regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border not long before Sajit’s own capture. He said al-Baghdadi entrusted him with delivering messages on flash drives to lieutenants inside Iraq.