Russia announced Friday it may have killed the leader of ISIS in an airstrike in Syria last month. But this isn’t the first time Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been declared dead, and this latest claim is being treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Russia’s defense ministry said it was working to verify information that al-Baghdadi, one of the world’s most wanted men, had been killed when its warplanes struck an ISIS command post near Raqqa during a meeting on May 28, killing more than 300 of the terror group’s fighters.
“According to information that is being verified through various channels, the leader of ISIS … Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also present at the meeting and was killed as a result of the strike,” the ministry said.
U.S. defense officials were thus far unable to confirm Russia’s reports, and many analysts expressed initial skepticism over the claim. ISIS, which has previously released statements hailing dead senior figures as martyrs, has so far stayed quiet on al-Baghdadi’s status.
The $25 million man
The fugitive ISIS leader, subject of a $25 million State Department reward for his arrest, has been falsely reported killed or wounded several times since he came to prominence in 2014. Just days ago, Syrian state television claimed he had been killed in a Syrian military strike on Raqqa.
But if the reports of his death are true, it would be one of the most significant blows to the terror group, currently losing a bloody battle to retain control of Raqqa and Mosul, the two major cities under its control. Baghdadi’s death would also be a major coup for Moscow, which has faced Western criticism that its intervention in Syria has prioritized supporting the Assad regime over effectively targeting terror groups.
Terrorism analyst Michael S. Smith II, co-founder of U.S.-based consulting firm Kronos Advisory, told VICE News he was sceptical of the Russian claim, as Moscow appeared to lack the intelligence capability to locate and target senior ISIS figures.
“The fact that Russia has been managing a ground forces-intensive campaign against the Islamic State and yet has failed to successfully locate and target senior ISIS leaders just highlights deficiencies in their capabilities,” he said.
Smith said the account given by Moscow suggests the Russians may think they got lucky and killed al-Baghdadi in the strike, without actually specifically targeting him. If Moscow had had the intelligence capability to deliberately target him at the site, Russia would presumably have been able to confirm his death by now, he said.
It was possible, added Smith, that the conflicting Russian and Syrian claims of al-Baghdadi’s death were part of a strategy to “stir chatter” among ISIS operatives and help establish whether he had been killed.
Since a now infamous 2014 video recording where he declared the establishment of an ISIS “caliphate” from a mosque in Mosul, al-Baghdadi has kept a decidedly low profile aside. While he has posted the occasional statement online, his physical location has been a closely guarded secret. In recent months, he had been rumored to be moving around the border area between Iraq and Syria, traveling with a minimal entourage in a bid to avoid detection.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that the strike in question targeted an ISIS group as they met to discuss their exit from Raqqa through a corridor to the south. It said the strike, which the U.S. was informed about in advance, had been launched after the target was confirmed through drone footage.
Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a longstanding Islamist militant who was a low-level al Qaeda operative when he was captured by U.S. forces in Falluja in 2004. After he was released in 2009, he became the head of the terror group’s affiliate in his country, before separating and forming ISIS, whose brutality has swiftly eclipsed even al Qaeda’s.
A number of senior ISIS figures have been killed in airstrikes or special forces raids since the U.S. began its campaign against the terror group in 2014.