Catching a ghost

The Russian defence ministry recently announced that one of the top leaders of the Islamic State militant group (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may have been killed in Raqqa, Iraq, during one of the air raids conducted by the state on May 28. If Baghdadi, who is considered a key leader of ISIS..

The Russian defence ministry recently announced that one of the top leaders of the Islamic State militant group (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may have been killed in Raqqa, Iraq, during one of the air raids conducted by the state on May 28.

If Baghdadi, who is considered a key leader of ISIS, has been killed, it will certainly be a triumphant moment in the ongoing war against terrorism. But intel agencies across the world and even those from Russia are sceptical on the veracity of these claims.

This isn’t the first time claims of Baghdadi have emerged and all of them have subsequently been proven wrong. Additionally, there are other reasons why the international community ought to approach this news with caution - Baghdadi is a master of keeping a low profile to the point that he essentially is a ghost among men.

Who is Baghdadi?

 To begin with, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not even his real name. Over the years, he has gone by several names and titles including Abu, Abu Bakr, and al-Baghdadi. His real name has been reported to be Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri. Likely to have been born in 1971 near the city of Samarra in Iraq, public details about the ISIS leader and his past are scarce. While American and Iraqi intelligence agencies believe that he has a PhD in Quranic studies from Saddam Univesity in Baghdad, a biography that was widely shared in online forums of extremist groups claimed that he has a doctorate from the Islamic University of Baghdad.

Described as a shy and retiring man, some reports have note that he was a cleric in Samarra when the US led the invasion against Iraq in 2003. However, this cannot be confirmed as there are also those who have stated that he was a jihadist during the Saddam Hussain regime.

In 2004, he was arrested by US forces and held as a “civilian internee” at both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca detention centers where he was likely held for a period of four years (although even this can’t be confirmed as US authorities claim to have released him as a “low level prisoner” in December of 2004). Some believe that it was during this period when he was radicalized, however even that is only conjecture.

It was in 2010 when he emerged as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and by 2011, the US had declared him a terrorist and offered a bounty of $25 million for information either leading to his capture or his death.

Since then, there isn’t a lot available in terms of videos or audio pertaining to Baghdadi. He made a video appearance in 2014 where he was recorded giving a sermon in Mosul. An audio recording of his voice was also released in 2016.

International community, unconvinced

One of the main reasons why the international community has been wary in believing that Baghdadi has been killed is because this isn’t the first time this claim has been made. Since 2014, there have been multiple reports of his death and all of them have been subsequently debunked. The Iraqi Air Force in 2015 said that it had targeted and bombed al-Baghdadi's convoy but stopped short of announcing that he had been killed. However, details later emerged that noted that he wasn’t part of the convoy. Similarly, in 2016, several news agencies in Middle East said that a US air strike killed him but by November an audio recording emerged of his voice that essentially put that rumour to rest as well.

Another reason why many believe that the air raid could not have killed Baghdadi is because there have been reports suggesting that ISIS has moved its headquarters from Syria's Raqqa to Deir Ezzour earlier this year. Hence, it is unlikely for Baghdadi to have been in that region in the first place, given his preference for keeping a low profile.

It should also be noted that the online chatter among IS supporters has been near silent. If the leader had been killed, experts believe several online forums housing IS supporters would have essentially exploded.

The most important reason as to why this news ought to be taken with a pinch of salt is because so much of the Russian foreign policy is coloured by misdirection and misinformation and the Russian government has in the past made claims that have later found to be untrue.

Assessment

If Baghdadi has been killed, this will certainly be a blow to the Islamic State and might likely destabilize it to some extent. However unless it is proved without a shadow of a doubt, this announcement cannot be taken too seriously. It is highly possible that Russia is sharing the information with the world in order to project the fact that it is proactively fighting ISIS as that image would only serve its own agenda in the future. 

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