Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled an attempted coup by fighters within his own group last month, senior regional intelligence officials have told the Guardian.
The incident, believed to have taken place on 10 January, took place in Hajin in the eastern province of Deir Ez-Zor, where Daesh fighters have been battling with the international coalition. In the midst of the fighting, foreign militants reportedly planned to oust Al-Baghdadi, who managed to quickly escape the town with the help of his bodyguards.
"They got wind of it just in time," an intelligence official said. "There was a clash and two people were killed. This was the foreign fighter element, some of his most trusted people."
Intelligence officials in Iraq, the UK and US believe that Al-Baghdadi has recently spent time in Daesh's final stronghold. An estimated 500 or so militants remain, along with their families, on the eastern banks of the Euphrates, hemmed in by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border, and by Iranian-backed Shia militias on the other.
The Daesh leader is now believe to have fled to the desert near Hasakah, where numerous fighters still have a weak control on the area. The terror group has lost swathes of land over the past year, prompting questions as to Al-Baghdadi's whereabouts. Having only made one infamous media appearance in 2014, when declaring his so-called caliphate at the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, the militant leader has been noticeably absent, with recent reports suggesting he was in Afghanistan.
However there has been little to suggest that Al-Baghdadi was under threat from his own fighters until now. Daesh is believed to have indirectly identified the mastermind of the coup attempt, after offering a reward to whomever kills Abu Muath Al-Jazairi, believed to be a veteran foreign fighter still present in Hajin. The drastic move has suggested to intelligence officials that he was the central plotter.
Thousands of foreign fighters are believed to have joined Daesh from 2014, many of whom are now in the custody of Kurdish militias that make up the SDF. The US has appealed for foreign governments to ease the burden on the SDF by repatriating their fighters for trial in their countries of origin. So far, France has been the only country to agree to take back fighters, where they will almost certainly face a prison sentence.
Since the announcement of US President Donald Trump's sudden decision to withdraw America's 2,000 troops from Syria, declaring Daesh defeated, fears over the future of Daesh have been heightened. This week, the Pentagon's official watchdog released a report, starkly predicting that without sustained pressure, the terror group could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory.
The ongoing threat posed by Daesh was subsequently emphasised by US General Joseph Votel, head of the US military's Central Command, who stressed that the militant group retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that will fuel a menacing insurgency.
Despite such opposition from senior officials, President Trump maintained on Wednesday that he expected to make a formal announcement as early as next week that the coalition fighting Daesh militants has reclaimed all of the territory previously held by the extremist group.