ISIS Spy Who Led Americans to Baghdadi 'Was Under a Lot of Pressure From His Family' to Betray Leader, Kurdish Commander Says

The spy who led U.S. special forces to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was motivated by revenge and pressure from his family to act, according to the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who played a key role in gathering intelligence for the raid in northwestern Syria last week.

In a new interview with NBC News, General Mazloum Abdi detailed the months-long SDF intelligence-gathering operation using the unidentified spy, whose reports led a U.S. kill team to a compound in the village of Barisha in the Syrian province of Idlib, less than three miles from the Turkish border.

Abdi said Arab man's family had suffered at the hands of ISIS. The man was driven by a desire for vengeance, the SDF commander said.

"His relatives were subjected to harsh treatment by ISIS and he no longer believed in the future of ISIS," Abdi told NBC. "He wanted to take revenge on ISIS and al-Baghdadi himself."

"I think he was under a lot of pressure from his family," the general added. He did not detail how the SDF came to recruit the spy.

The spy was a member of Baghdadi's notoriously tight inner circle, with direct access to the leader's safe houses and his travel plans.

This privileged position meant the spy could provide detailed information on Baghdadi's whereabouts and security arrangements, enabling the U.S. operation that killed him and several members of his group, as first reported by Newsweek.

"He was, you could say, a security official," the general explained. "A personal security official for al-Baghdadi himself, in charge of al-Baghdadi's movements." Part of his role was ensuring security at the network of safe houses around which Baghdadi traveled. As such, he memorized the locations and details of every position.

The world's most wanted terrorist took few chances with his safety. Well-aware of modern intelligence gathering techniques, Baghdadi ensured a near-blackout on communications wherever he went, Abdi said. Years of living on the run and the attrition of his top aides meant his inner circle was small at the end.

"His direct family, the children, his relatives, his siblings, they are formed a tight ring around him," Abdi told NBC. One of the few allowed to meet with him was the informant.

The spy was at the compound when U.S. forces began their hours-long assault. Though several others died, the informant was "returned safely with the American forces," Abdi said. Officials have said he will likely receive all or part of the $25 million bounty put on Baghdadi.

SDF forces had known Baghdadi's location since April, Abdi said, when the leader traveled to Idlib as U.S.-backed forces cleared the last remnants of ISIS' so-called caliphate from eastern Syria.

It was a surprising place to find him. The province is one of the few areas still held by anti-government rebels, who have been fighting President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

But in recent years, the various factions within the pocket have been absorbed or co-opted by Islamist groups, primarily Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—a merging of groups which included the Al-Nusra Front—which has long been considered a branch of Al-Qaeda.

ISIS has openly clashed with such groups, but Baghdadi managed to find a pocket of relative safety among sympathizers, Abdi said.

Fighters from Huras al-Din—another extremist group that split from Tahrir al-Sham—were at Baghdadi's compound during the raid and were killed by U.S. operators. One of the group's commanders—Abu Muhammad al-Halabi—reportedly owned the house. Evidence has also emerged that ISIS was paying Huras al-Din fighters to protect Baghdadi.

"The idea that al-Baghdadi was in Idlib was completely unexpected," Abdi said. "It was a surprise to everyone."

Security was tight, but because of his trusted position the spy was not subjected to the same precautions as others when he visited the house. "When they approached the area, [Baghdadi's guards] would ask him to lower his seat so he can't look around," Abdi said. "They asked him to lay down, to lower the seat in the taxi."

Unlike others, he was not blindfolded. This meant that even in his seat-down position he could pick out certain landmarks and distinguishing elements that revealed the compound's location.

Once he was inside, the spy was allowed to look around freely. Thus he was able to create a map of the property that U.S. forces would use in their assault, even down to the tunnels dug underneath the compound where Baghdadi blew himself up.

"He provided information about the house itself, the shape of the house and things to do with the house, the specifications of the house," Abdi said.

"We learned that there was a tunnel in the house," he added. "We learned how many people in the house, how many guards were in the house. We learned the closest al-Nusra checkpoints near the house. We learned all the security details of the house."

Nonetheless, the U.S. demanded absolute proof of the spy's access to Baghdadi, fearing a trap. This is when the information acquired a used pair of the leaders underwear and vial of his blood. After testing them against DNA samples taken when Baghdadi was detained by U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials confirmed it was their man.

"After that, the CIA took this more seriously," Abdi recalled. "They began to work hard and serious on the highest level."

President Donald Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria threw the planning for the raid into turmoil. Not only were local U.S. resources being withdrawn, but the White House was abandoning its SDF allies to a Turkish assault.

The New York Times suggested that the plan to kill or capture Baghdadi succeeded in spite of the president's foreign policy, rather than because of it.

While the SDF were refocusing resources on fighting the Turks and their allies, Baghdadi was preparing to move again.

"Al-Baghdadi had prepared a new house for himself in a different place located in the area of Dera al-Fraat" in the Jarablus area, which is currently held by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

"That house was ready," he added. "I assume that within 48 hours he would have left the house to the new house, and the new house was completely different and wasn't known."

spy, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS, Syria, pressure
This handout image provided by the Department of Defense shows Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s compound in Barisha, Syria, prior to a U.S. raid on October 26, 2019. Department of Defense via Getty Images/Getty

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts