The Russian defence ministry says it believes it may have killed the Isis leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in an air strike south of Raqqa, Syria. In a statement, the ministry said it was still seeking confirmation following the strike in late May.
Though acknowledging it was still checking its own claim, Moscow said it had information that Baghdadi was among a gathering of up to 30 Isis leaders in the north-eastern city of Raqqa that was struck by its fighter jets just after midnight on 28 May.
“As a result of the Su-35 and Su-34 air strikes, high-ranking commanders of the terrorist group that were part of the so-called military council of IGIL, as well as about 30 middle-level field commanders and up to 300 militants of their personal protection, were killed.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the claim remained unproved. “So far, I have no 100% confirmation of the information that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed,” he said.
Western and regional intelligence agencies believe Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted man, was seriously wounded in late February 2015 but has since recovered and remains in functional control of Isis as it rapidly loses territory.
Claims of Baghdadi being hit by airstrikes have been made frequently over the past three years, the most recent came from the Syrian military this week. Both governments view psychological warfare as an essential component of the war against the group, and efforts to cripple morale are likely to intensify as it continues to suffer losses.
Baghdadi’s range of movement has been severely limited by ground attacks in Iraq and a concerted air campaign that has picked off most of the group’s senior leaders and thousands of its foot soldiers.
Baghdadi moved about in ordinary cars, or the kind of pick-up trucks used by farmers, between hideouts on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, with just a driver and two bodyguards, said Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle East governments on ISIS affairs.
He is known to have been based in a narrow area between the western edge of Mosul and just across the Syrian border.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Sunni militant jihadist organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), controls territory in several countries. The group has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, as well as by the European Union and many individual states.
In June 2014 he was elected by the majlis al-shura, consultative council or Shura council, representing the ahl al-hall wal-aqd of the Islamic State, to be their caliph, which he claims to be.
On October 4, 2011, the U.S.State Department added al-Baghdadi to the Specially Designated Nationals List and announced a reward of up to US$10 million for information or intelligence leading to his capture or death.
On December 16, 2016, the U.S. increased the reward to $25 million equal to the reward being offered for the leader of al-Qaeda,Ayman al Zawahiri. Authorities within the United States have also accused al-Baghdadi of kidnapping, enslaving, and repeatedly raping an American citizen, Kayle Mueller, who was later killed.
Over time, there have been a number of reports of al-Baghdadi’s death or injury; however, none have been verified.
Baghdadi is not, however, known to have travelled to Raqqa in recent months, where Kurdish militias, backed by the US, have been edging towards a city that had been the group’s Syrian stronghold since early 2013.
Baghdadi has kept a low profile, speaking out in occasional videos and audio messages. He does not use phones and has a handful of approved couriers to communicate with his two main aides, Iyad al-Obaidi, his defence minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, in charge of security.
What remains of the Isis leadership fled Ba’aj and nearby villages throughout last week, crossing into Syria where officials regrouped along with remaining fighters in the towns of Dishasha and Mayedin.
In Mosul, where Baghdadi proclaimed himself leader of the now capitulating caliphate, the group’s presence has shrunk to a pocket of the Old City, where the UN says surrounded Isis fighters are holding hostage as many as 10,000 civilians.
The loss of Mosul will be a crushing blow for Isis’s ambitions to control a swath of land straddling two nations where it could impose an ultra-hardline version of Islamic law on captive communities and from which it intended to make inroads elsewhere in the Arab world and beyond.