Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Really Dead?
Ian Robert Henderson, Foreign Policy Contributor
Opinion -- Just a day after ISIS’s defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul, reports from Iraq’s al-Sumaria News Agency and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claimed that the embattled jihadist group has officially declared the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Pentagon, however, said that it cannot yet confirm his death. The self-declared Caliph of the group has not released a public communication since last November, leading many to wonder of his whereabouts. According to SOHR and al Sumaria, ISIS made the statement without stating the cause and time of his death.
Last month, Russian officials claimed that Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike in northern Syria. It was one of many unverified claims made by a number of nations and groups over the past two years. Reports of Baghdadi being injured severely in an airstrike on March 18th, 2015 circled in the media for months. Following this, the Syrian and Iraqi militaries have on a number of occasions claimed to have killed Baghdadi in airstrikes, only to have their claims debunked weeks later. This unverified claim by al-Sumaria may be a ploy by the Iraqi government to bolster its image the day after its seizure of Mosul by the last holdouts of ISIS militants. Additionally, the report says that the statements came from ISIS forces located in the besieged area of Tal Afar in Iraq, which is west of Mosul. Whether the group’s claim is legitimate or not is yet to be determined. Also, the remote area of Tal Afar is an unusual location for ISIS to make the statement that its leader was killed. A statement as big as this would likely come from its central command which is currently located in al-Mayadin, Syria. For this same reason, SOHR’s claim is just as questionable
Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi rushed to announce victory in Mosul on July 10 even though there was still sporadic fighting. Even now, there are still pockets of ISIS combatants fighting in parts of the Old City of Mosul. Abadi’s government is desperate to create a strong and powerful image to detract from the reality that his government is in a severely weakened state as a result of the war against ISIS. Its only saving grace is its largest benefactor, the Shia regional power, Iran. The fact that al-Sumaria announced this in such a short time following the Mosul victory announcement is a bit to coincidental to avoid skepticism.
Due to the amount of times that Baghdadi’s death has been falsely reported, he has gained the nickname “The Ghost”. Baghdadi is reported to change his location multiple times a day to avoid being detected. It will take some time to verify his death if it is indeed true that he has been killed. The reality is no one really knows whether Baghdadi is dead nor not. Even most ISIS fighters have no idea of his whereabouts. The irony of it all is, back during the Iraq War, Baghdadi was a prisoner in the US-controlled Abu Gharib prison in 2004. He was released after a U.S. military panel deemed him a “low level prisoner”. U.S. military officials, in a cavalier manner, let a low-level terrorist escape only to become more dangerous and threatening than al-Qaeda. The international community will likely not find out the fate of “The Ghost” until we see a body. Until then, the world should take the claims of his death with a grain of salt and focus on eliminating the power structure of ISIS and taking out its key strategic positions in Iraq and Syria.
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