Russia’s military said on Friday that it was looking into whether one of its airstrikes in the Syrian desert had killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State.
In a statement, the Defense Ministry said that the Russian Air Force struck a meeting of Islamic State leaders on May 28 outside Raqqa, Syria, the group’s de facto capital, possibly killing Mr. Baghdadi.
The statement left major questions unanswered. It offered no explanation for the two-week delay in publicizing the airstrike. It was also not clear whether the Russian military had known in advance that Mr. Baghdadi was at the gathering, or had learned of this possibility only after the strike was carried out.
Mr. Baghdadi’s death has long been the subject of many rumors, and a Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis of the Navy, said on Friday: “We have no information to corroborate those reports.”
Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, said that American air commanders in Qatar speak almost daily on a special hotline with their Russian counterparts, primarily to avoid any midair accidents by warplanes flying missions in Syria. He said in an interview that analysts were now going back over the reports from May 28 and the subsequent days to see what the Russians had said about flight operations.
Nothing has been heard from Mr. Baghdadi since November, when the Islamic State released a blistering audio recording in which he urged forces to remain firm in the face of the American-backed Iraqi offensive in Mosul.
Rami Abdul Rahman, the founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors military operations in Syria, said it had no record of senior Islamic State leaders being in the area around Raqqa at the time of the strike. “It’s illogical for ISIS senior leaders to stay in Raqqa amid this military operation,” he said, adding that senior leaders had already decamped southeast, to the area around the city of Deir ez-Zor, closer to the border with Iraq.
Laith Alkhouri, a director at Flashpoint, a business risk intelligence company in New York that tracks militant threats and cyberthreats, also expressed skepticism.
“At this time, I’m not seeing credible chatter to verify the claim by Russia,” he said. “Al-Baghdadi has been claimed killed multiple times before, and none of the previous claims proved legitimate.”
SOURCE: ANDREW E. KRAMER and ERIC SCHMITT
The New York Times