An air raid by the International Coalition against Daesh in May 2015, which killed Tunisian terrorist Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunis, who was responsible for selling oil that Daesh stole, was a turning point in the life of his wife, Umm Sayyaf.
Om Sayyaf was captured back then after the raid, and she revealed many Daesh secrets, including the whereabouts of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Umm Sayyaf, or Nisrine Asaad Ibrahim, 29, is considered a controversial character, as she was convicted with involvement in the most horrible Daesh crimes, including the enslavement of American human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker Kayla Mueller and many women and young girls who were raped by Daesh members.
Asaad helped CIA agents and officers to sketch out a detailed board of Baghdadi’s movements, hideouts and networks, however, a death sentence is waiting for her back in Erbil, Iraq.
Um Sayyaf spoke to the Guardian, partly through a translator, at a prison in the city. She was accompanied by a Kurdish intelligence officer who made no attempt to intervene in the interview.
Her husband, al-Tunis, was a close friend of Baghdadi’s and veteran of the group who held one of its most important roles at the time of his death.
In February 2016 she identified a house in Mosul in which Baghdadi was believed to have been staying.
“I told them where the house was,” said Umm Sayyaf. “I knew he’d been there because it was one of the houses that was provided for him, and one of the places he liked the most.”
Her marriage, and jihadist pedigree – her family had been an integral part of the Daesh leadership – had given her more proximity to Baghdadi than nearly all other Daesh women. As one of the organization’s most important wives, she had rare access to meetings and personal discussions and was present several times when Baghdadi recorded audio propaganda messages in the home she shared with her husband.
“He used to do that in our sitting room in Taji [a town in central Iraq],” she said. “My husband was the [Daesh] media chief then, and Baghdadi would visit often.”
Abu Sayyaf had led forces who had commandeered Syria’s oil-producing facilities and used the proceeds to fund the terror group’s consolidation and expansion across eastern Syria and western Iraq.
His death crippled the terror group’s cash flow and slowed its momentum.
Umm Sayyaf at first refused to cooperate with her captors and remained sullen and sometimes volatile in her cell in northern Iraq. But by early 2016, she had begun to reveal some of the organization’s most sensitive secrets, none more so than how Baghdadi moved around and operated.
For many hours Umm Sayyaf pored over maps and photographs laid out on a table in front of her, alongside American men. “They were very polite and wore civilian clothes,” she said. “I showed them everything I knew.”
She soon became integral to an intelligence-gathering effort alongside US and Kurdish officers that led them to a hideout in the west of the city.
Speaking about Baghdadi, she said, “He visited us often in Syria. Before we moved to Omar [oil field], we lived in a house in Shadadah [a nearby town]”.
A senior Kurdish intelligence official said of Umm Sayyaf’s collaboration, “She gave us a really clear picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s family structure and the people who mattered most to him. We learned about the wives of the people around him in particular, and that has been very useful for us. She identified lots of people and their responsibilities. And she gave us a sense of the real feelings of the leadership wives.”
A second senior intelligence officer said that in the Mosul case, sources on the ground in one of the areas of west Mosul that Umm Sayyaf had identified began to pick up an unusual pattern of movement. “They used to put their guards on the street, these were the internal security people, who only hang around when someone important is there. Soon, we zeroed in on the house, and we were very confident that Baghdadi was there.
“We told the Americans and asked them to act, and they said they had other things on. Baghdadi moved houses quite quickly and we missed him. Later, the Americans came back and said we were right.”