Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reportedly seriously wounded in a March airstrike by US-led coalition forces in western Iraq.
According a report in the UK’s The Guardian on Tuesday, the self-proclaimed leader has been slowly recovering from the life-threatening injuries he sustained in the attack and has yet to return to running the group’s day-to-day operations.
In January, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat that al-Baghdadi was wounded during an airstrike on al-Qa’im, an Iraqi town on the Syrian border.
But Hisham al-Hashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government on IS, told the paper Tuesday that “Yes, he was wounded in al-Baaj near the village of Umm al-Rous on 18 March with a group that was with him.”
The severity of al-Baghdadi’s injuries forced IS leaders to urgently begin the process of selecting a new leader, in case he died.
A western diplomat and an Iraqi adviser independently confirmed to the paper that the airstrike on a three-car convoy in the town of al-Baaj killed three IS members on the same day. He said that, at the time, coalition officials were unaware that al-Baghdadi was in one of the cars.
Previous reports of al-Baghdadi’s death or injury — in November and December of last year — have been proven false.
Another source familiar with the group’s movements said that al-Baghdadi was spending the majority of his time near al-Baaj, located in the Nineveh province some 300 km (200 miles) west of the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. He said that the notoriously reclusive leader chose the Sunni tribal region as his hiding place because of its remote location and of the limited US military presence in the area.
Al-Baghdadi was the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq before founding the extremist Islamic State group in 2010. In June of last year, he proclaimed the large parts of Syria and Iraq under the group’s control as an Islamic caliphate, and named himself as caliph.
Recently, the jihadist group — notorious for horrific acts of violence including rape, torture and beheadings — has lost substantial ground in both countries. An offensive of Shia militias, the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces last month reclaimed key areas from the jihadist group, including Iraq’s third-largest city of Tikrit.