Russia’s deputy foreign minister told state media Thursday that it is highly likely Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, was killed in a Russian airstrike near Raqqa, Syria, on May 28.
Oleg Syromolotov told Sputnik the “information is now verified through various channels.” The remarks are similar to those made June 16 by the Russian Defense Ministry, which said Baghdadi was among more than 300 ISIS militants, including mid-level field commanders, who were killed as a result of Russian airstrikes near Raqqa, the city that serves as the terrorist group’s de-facto capital.
As I wrote at the time:
Baghdadi has been reported dead several times previously, but Russia has rarely made such claims since its military involvement in the Syrian civil war began in September 2015. The report, which was published in Sputnik, the state-run news service, would be a devastating blow to the group that has steadily lost ground in Iraq and Syria in recent years—pushed back by U.S.-led airstrikes, as well as ground offensives by Iraqi, Kurdish, Shia, and other forces in the region. Russia’s involvement in Syria has also hurt the group, which still provides potent reminders of its ability to carry out deadly attacks in Western cities.
The U.S. and Iraq were skeptical of the Russian claims. Last week U.S. Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said, “We have no information to corroborate those reports.” Reuters cited a senior Trump administration official as saying a number of claims in the Russian reports—including the number of people reported dead—gave the U.S. pause.
“A strike of that size and that claim that would have happened that long ago without any knowledge is something that made me curious,” the official told Reuters. An Iraqi military official told the news agency Baghdadi was not believed to be in Raqqa in late May when the Russians said their strike occurred.
ISIS has been pushed back in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria by U.S.-backed Iraqi, Kurdish, and allied forces, as well as by Russian-backed Syrian and allied troops. The group retains some ability to strike overseas—though at this point it is unclear if those operations are directed by ISIS or are inspired by it.
The Russian deputy foreign minister’s claim on Thursday came a day after Iraqi forces appeared to close to wresting Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, back from ISIS, which captured it in 2014. Among the non-human casualties of the fighting was the historic Grand Mosque of al-Nuri. Iraqi officials said ISIS destroyed the mosque, from which Baghdadi proclaimed his “caliphate,” but the terrorist group, which has destroyed other places of worship, said U.S. airstrikes had targeted the mosque—a claim the U.S. denies.