The Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it was “highly likely” the leader of the Islamic State terror group was killed in an airstrike last month, a week after Moscow first indicated he may have died along with dozens of other IS jihadists in a raid carried out by Russian forces in late May.
“It is highly likely that Islamic State leader [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi was eliminated in an airstrike of the Russian Air Force on a militant command post in a southern suburb of the city of Raqqa in late May,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov on Thursday, citing data from the Defense Ministry.
He reiterated a Defense Ministry statement from June 16 that said the death was “being verified through various channels.”
After Russia first reported the possible death, the Pentagon said at the time that it had no supporting information “to corroborate those reports.”
Russia has said its forces targeted a meeting of IS leaders just outside the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria on May 28, with the Defense Ministry saying that 30 mid-level militant leaders and about 300 other fighters were killed in the raid.
The ministry said the IS leaders were gathered to discuss the group’s withdrawal from Raqqa. It said the military began planning the hit after getting word that the group’s leadership was to meet in order to plan IS’s exit to the south. The Russian military sent drones to monitor the area and then dispatched a group of Su-34 bombers and Su-35 fighter jets to hit the IS gathering.
The Defense Ministry added that it had warned the US of the coming strike.
IS has been on the retreat for some time with US-led coalition forces making gains on jihadist-held territory in Iraq and Syria for over a year.
On Wednesday, IS jihadists blew up Mosul’s iconic leaning minaret and the adjacent mosque where al-Baghdadi in 2014 declared himself “caliph” in his only public appearance. The destruction of the Iraqi city’s two best-known landmarks came on the fourth day of an Iraqi offensive backed by the US-led coalition to take the Old City, where holdout jihadists are making a bloody last stand.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the destruction of the sites was “an official declaration of defeat” from the jihadists in the eight-month-old battle for Mosul.
The city was the first captured by the Islamic State in a blitz in June 2014. The group has since horrified the world with its atrocities in areas they held as well as attacks they claimed around the world that killed hundreds.
The claims of al-Baghdadi’s possible demise comes nearly three years to the day after he declared himself the leader of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, from the now-destroyed mosque in Mosul.
There had been previous reports of al-Baghdadi being killed but they did not turn out to be true. The IS leader last released an audio on Nov. 3, urging his followers to keep up the fight for Mosul as they defend the Iraqi city against a major offensive that began weeks earlier.
Al-Baghdadi is a nom de guerre for a man identified as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. The US is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to his death or capture.
As the militants take a pounding in their eroding strongholds, US officials and Syrian activists say many commanders have fled Mosul and Raqqa in recent months for Mayadeen, a remote town in the heart of Syria’s IS-controlled, Euphrates River valley near the Iraqi border. Their relocation could extend the group’s ability to wreak havoc in the region and beyond for months to come.
Most recently, the group claimed responsibility for attacks in Iran’s parliament and a shrine to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, killing at least 17 people and injuring more than 50. It also claimed responsibility for the June 3 London attack that killed eight people. Both attacks would have taken place after al-Baghdadi’s alleged killing.
If confirmed, al-Baghdadi’s death would mark a major military success for Russia, which has conducted a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad since September 2015.