Isil leader reported dead is 'on the run and may take years to capture'
Reports of Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death at the weekend were greatly exaggerated and even though he is on the run, it may take years to capture or kill him, officials and experts said.
Isil fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group's territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and officials say Baghdadi is steering clear of both, hiding in thousands of square km of desert between the two.
"In the end, he will either be killed or captured, he will not be able to remain underground forever," said Lahur Talabany, the head of counter-terrorism at the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. "But this is a few years away still," he said.
One of Baghdadi's main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the $25m (€22.3m) reward offered by the United States to bring him "to justice", said Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle East governments on Isil affairs. "With no land to rule openly, he can no longer claim the title caliph," he said. "He is a man on the run and the number of his supporters is shrinking as they lose territory."
Iraqi forces have retaken much of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city the hardline group seized in June 2014 and from which Baghdadi declared himself "caliph" shortly after. Raqqa, his capital in Syria, is nearly surrounded by a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab groups.
Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al-Qa'ida in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group's leader Osama bin Laden.
He grew up in a religious family, studied Islamic Theology in Baghdad and joined the Salaafi jihadist insurgency in 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq. He was caught by the Americans who released him about a year later as they considered him then as a civilian rather than a military target.
He is shy and reserved, Mr Hashimi said, and has recently stuck to the sparsely populated Iraq-Syria border where drones and strangers are easy to spot.
"The [$25m] reward creates worry and tension, it restricts his movements and limits the number of his guards," said Fadhel Abu Ragheef, a Baghdad-based expert on extremist groups. "He doesn't stay more than 72 hours in any one place."
Baghdadi "has become nervous and very careful in his movements", said Mr Talabany. "His circle of trust has become even smaller."
His last recorded speech was issued in November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he urged his followers to fight the "unbelievers" and "make their blood flow as rivers".
US and Iraqi officials believe he has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, to focus on his own survival.
The US government has a joint task force to track down Baghdadi which includes special operations forces, the CIA and other US intelligence agencies.
It will take more than that to erase his influence, Mr Talabany said. "He is still considered the leader of Isil and many continue to fight for him; that hasn't changed drastically," he said.
Even if killed or captured, he added, "his legacy and that of Isil will endure unless radical extremism is tackled".