The leader of the Islamic State terror organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is almost certainly alive and living south of the IS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official claimed Monday.
“Baghdadi is definitely alive. He is not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent he is alive,” Lahur Talabany told the Reuters news service in an interview.
“Don’t forget his roots go back to al-Qaeda days in Iraq,” Talabany said, referring to the terror group, targeted for decades by the US and other Western powers, that Islamic State grew out of. “He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing.”
This latest claim appears to strengthen Sunday’s assessment by Abu Ali al-Basri, head of the the Iraqi interior ministry’s intelligence and counter-terrorism operations service, who also said al-Baghdadi was alive and hiding in Syria, Al Arabiya TV reported.
But it is just the latest in a string of claims and counterclaims, with some asserting with similar confidence that the leader of the brutal organization is definitely dead.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had received confirmation of al-Baghdadi’s death from “top tier commanders” of Islamic State in a part of eastern Syria still largely under IS control.
Soon after that report, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led operation against IS, was asked to confirm or deny al-Baghdadi’s death.
“I don’t have a clue,” he answered.
Speaking from Baghdad, he added, “Hope he’s deader than a door nail. And if he’s not, as soon as we find out where he is, he will be.”
In June, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “highly likely” that al-Baghdadi had been killed in a May airstrike carried out by the country’s military.
The reclusive jihadist chief made his only known public appearance as “caliph” at Friday prayers on June 29, 2014, at the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul — where, last month, Iraq declared victory over al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State group after a grueling battle.
That appearance three years ago made the mosque a symbol of IS rule, and the jihadists did not allow it to be captured intact, blowing it and its famed leaning minaret up in June as Iraqi forces closed in.
The 46-year-old Iraqi-born leader of IS, nicknamed “The Ghost,” has not been seen in public since his 2014 visit to the mosque, and the fortunes of his “caliphate” have taken a drastic turn for the worse.
The world’s most-wanted man has been rumored wounded or killed a number of times in the past, and while he was said to have left Mosul earlier this year, his whereabouts were never confirmed.
Islamic State has lost control over vast areas of Iraq and expectations are that it will also lose its stronghold of Raqqa, in Syria, by year’s end.