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Has Islamic State’s brutal leader finally been killed?

Reports about Baghdadi being killed or injured in air raids by coalition forces seem to emerge every few months

world Updated: Jun 16, 2017 16:55 IST
HT Correspondent
File photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.
File photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.(AP)

The Russian Army said on Friday it was seeking to verify whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reclusive Islamic State chief, was killed when its warplanes hit the group’s top leaders in a raid in Syria last month.

Within hours, the US military said it could not immediately confirm Baghdadi’s death. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov too said he couldn’t definitively confirm the death of the world’s most-wanted man.

Reports about Baghdadi being killed or injured in air raids by coalition forces seem to emerge every few months. Last year alone, there were three reports that he had been killed or injured in air strikes or that he had been poisoned by an assassin.

According to the latest reports, Russia’s defence ministry claimed Baghdadi was killed with scores of IS commanders and fighters when Sukhoi combat jets carried out a 10-minute strike early on May 28 at a location near Raqqa in Syria, one of the last strongholds of the terror group.

The jets struck when the IS leaders had gathered to plan a pullout from Raqqa. “Senior commanders of the military groups of the so-called IS military council, 30 mid-ranking field commanders and up to 300 militants who provided security for them were eliminated,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

“According to information which is being checked through various channels, the leader of ISIL Ibrahim Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi was also present at the meeting and was eliminated by the strike,” it added.

But the US-led coalition said it could not confirm Baghdadi’s death. “We cannot confirm these reports at this time,” said the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, US Army’s Col Ryan Dillon.

Asked about the claim at a news conference in Moscow, Lavrov said: “I don’t have a 100% confirmation of the information.”

He said even if Baghdadi’s death is confirmed, its importance mustn’t be overestimated. Lavrov said “past examples of similar actions to strike the leadership of terrorist groups were presented with much enthusiasm and pomp, but the experience shows that those structures later regained their capability”.

Iraq-born Baghdadi has not been seen in public since proclaiming himself “caliph” in the Iraqi city of Mosul three years ago. The re-emergence of Baghdadi after reports of his “death” has only added to his mystique, given that most people didn’t even know what he looked like till he appeared in a video of a sermon at a mosque in Mosul in July 2014.

Here are past occasions when Baghdadi was reported dead or injured

November 2014

Baghdadi was named the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, the predecessor of the IS, in May 2010. One of the first reports that he had died emerged months after he was made the “caliph” of the IS in June 2014. In November that year, it was reported Baghdadi had been killed in a US air strike.

A week later, Baghdadi surfaced with an audio tape that called for “volcanoes of jihad” around the world.

March 2015

Baghdadi was “seriously injured” in an air strike by the US-led coalition at al-Baaj in Nineveh on March 18, 2015, leading to urgent meetings of IS leaders who believed he would not survive and even made plans to name a new leader. Reports later said he had made a slow recovery.

A subsequent report even said Baghdadi remained incapacitated because of suspected spinal injuries some two months after the attack and that he had been secretly treated at a hideout by two doctors from Mosul.

October 2015

After an air strike on a convoy of senior IS commanders near Iraq’s border with Syria in October 2015, the Iraqi military had said in a statement the attacked had targeted Baghdadi’s motorcade as he travelled to Karbala. As with several other claims by the Iraqi military about targeting Baghdadi, this too turned out to be incorrect. Though other IS leaders were killed, Baghdadi was not among them.

June 2016

There were reports in the media in several countries, including Turkey’s Yeni Safak daily and Iraq’s Al Sumariya TV network, that Baghdadi was killed or injured when an air strike hit an IS convoy near Raqqa. This was later found to be incorrect and reports even suggested someone had circulated a fake claim about Baghdadi’s death that was digitally altered to suggest it was issued by one of the media outlets of the IS.

October 2016

Iran’s FARS new agency reported that Baghdadi was poisoned in Iraq by a suspected assassin. The report had described his condition as critical.

June 2017

Syria’s state-run television had reported on June 11 that Baghdadi had been killed in US-backed strikes in Raqqa. The channel even aired what it claimed was footage of his body. However, it later emerged the images were fake and had been associated with earlier claims about Baghdadi’s death.