As the last shred of Islamic State territory in Syria fell to Kurdish-backed forces this month, thousands of people, including fighters, fled the enclave or surrendered. Yet when the exodus was over and the “caliphate” was extinguished, a mystery lingered: Where was the “caliph”?
“We don’t know where he is,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, told reporters on Monday. Asked whether finding him was a priority, Jeffrey responded: “Finding the top leadership of ISIS or other terrorist groups is always a priority.”
In the four and a half years since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi indulged in a rare public appearance, in Mosul, to declare a caliphate—the last part of that period spent with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head—the titular chief of the Islamic State has eluded capture. He has more than once been rumored dead or incapacitated, only to be reported at large later. A voice that experts believed to be his appeared on a recording last summer, urging followers to wage attacks independently, and he hasn’t been heard from publicly since.