MOSCOW/BAGHDAD – Reuters
Moscow said on June 16 that its forces may have killed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an air strike near the Syrian city of Raqqa last month.
There was no initial independent confirmation that al-Baghdadi had been killed. The U.S.-led military coalition fighting against ISIL said it could not confirm the death, and several Iraqi officials told Reuters they were skeptical.
The ISIL leader has frequently been reported killed or wounded since he declared a caliphate in Mosul in 2014, after leading his fighters on a sweep through northern Iraq.
If the report does prove true, it would be one of the biggest blows yet to ISIL, which is trying to defend its shrinking territory against an array of forces backed by regional and global powers in both Syria and Iraq.
Defense Ministry said on its Facebook page that it was checking information that al-Baghdadi was killed in the strike, which it launched after receiving intelligence that a meeting of ISIL leaders was being planned.
“On May 28, after drones were used to confirm the information on the place and time of the meeting of ISIL leaders, between 00:35 and 00:45, Russian
air forces launched a strike on the command point where the leaders were located,” the statement said.
“According to the information which is now being checked via various channels, also present at the meeting was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated as a result of the strike,” the ministry said.
However, a colonel with the Iraqi national security service told Reuters al-Baghdadi was not believed to have been in Raqqa at the time of the strike in late May. One of al-Baghdadi’s aides may have been killed rather than al-Baghdadi himself, the colonel said.
He said that al-Baghdadi was believed to be operating cautiously in the border area between Iraq and Syria with just a handful of close aides, and avoiding using telecommunications equipment to evade surveillance.
Another Iraqi intelligence official said the Russians had not shared any information with Iraqi authorities to indicate al-Baghdadi was killed. Iraq was checking the report and would announce his death if it received “solid confirmation.”
The U.S. administration was unable to provide any update on the report on al-Baghdadi, a White House official said on June 16.
Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, al-Baghdadi is an Iraqi in his mid-forties, who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013 after years participating in the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq and the Iraqi government. The U.S. State Department has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his arrest.