After a coalition airstrike in March that left Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seriously wounded and on the verge of death, the leader of the so-called Islamic State (IS) is no longer in full control of the violent militant group's day-to-day activities, sources have said.
The world primarily knows Baghdadi through a handful of passport-style photos and his video appearances in July, which he made as the radical Sunni Muslim organization swept through Iraq and Syria as it formed a caliphate in the region. Despite his own abstruse presence, the bearded cleric has been the shadowy leader behind the scenes of one of the most bloody and visible insurgencies in recent years. The ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq have now left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced, according to UN figures.
Numerous reports of Baghdadi's serious wounding or death have spread across social and traditional media in recent months, as Kurdish and moderate Syrian rebel militia continue to battle IS on the ground, assisted by US-led coalition warplanes that have been bombing militant targets since late last year.
This week, a Western diplomat and an Iraqi adviser separately told the Guardian that one such airstrike hit a convoy of militants on March 18, in Nineveh province, close to the Syrian border. Unknown to coalition military leaders, Baghdadi was traveling in one of the cars and received life-threatening injuries in the attack, according to the sources.
Baghdadi has reportedly been recovering from those injuries since the incident. However, at one point senior IS leaders held an emergency meeting to discuss naming a new leader, fearing Baghdadi was close to death, the sources claimed.
Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad official who advises the government on IS, told the Guardian Baghdadi was struck in al-Baaj, a Sunni tribal area roughly 200 miles west of Iraq's second largest city and militant stronghold of Mosul, where he had reportedly been spending most of his time.
"He chose this area because he knew from the war that the Americans did not have much cover there," another unnamed source said. "From 2003 (the US military) barely had a presence there. It was the one part of Iraq that they hadn't mapped out."
Unconfirmed reports of Baghdadi's critical wounding had previously surfaced in November after a coalition airstrike hit a home near the western Iraqi town of Quaim, where militant leaders were reportedly meeting. That attack allegedly killed IS's local leader in Iraq's Anbar province and his deputy, local residents told Reuters.
In December, coalition airstrikes reportedly killed Baghdadi's second-in-command, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, near Mosul, while in the same month, Baghdadi allegedly came close to death again when airstrikes hit a convoy killing a close aide, Auf Abdulrahman al-Efery, but missed another car the leader was traveling in at the time.
Washington has issued a $10 million bounty on Baghdadi's head.
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