Todays announcement regarding the death of the Islamic States leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, this time by multiple sources, is causing a frenzy for many news media outlets. The supposed death of the Caliph, resultant from May 28th airstrike by Russian military aircraft operating out of Syria had been received with much skepticism. The death of Baghdadi had been previously reported on many occasions, but each time had ultimately never turned out to be substantive. This has caused a great deal of disbelief whenever the report of a successful strike on the Islamic State’s leader has been claimed, including in this round.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has claimed to have conclusive evidence in the form of “confirmed information” that the death of Baghdadi has indeed occurred. Although the Syrian Observatory does have a very credible record for reporting on the conflict, its access to information in this case does not surpass the same information channels that many regional news outlets have access to and are concurrently reporting on. Many news outlets in both Iraq and Syria continue to cite Islamic State officials and official military spokesmen in their assertion of Baghdadi’s death. The director of a British-based war monitoring group has also stated “We have confirmed information from leaders, including one of the first rank who is Syrian, in the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor”.
A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis of the U.S. Navy, said on Friday that “We have no information to corroborate those reports.” And in Iraq, U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said he could not confirm the news of Baghdadi’s death either. Laith Alkhouri, one of the directors at Flashpoint, a business risk intelligence company in New York that tracks militant threats and cyberthreats, has also expressed skepticism in the potential death of the Islamic State’s leader.
The reported death of Baghdadi, or at least the widespread belief of his death, can mostly be attributed to the scale of admittance by his inner circle and upper chain of command. A few of the Islamic State’s spokesman have even announced that the organization would soon be choosing a new leader to replace Baghdad, though this replacement would not assume the religious title of “Caliph”.
At this point, it still is not 100% confirmed that the Islamic States Caliph had actually been killed in the May 28th airstrike by Russia, but the patterns of a successful strike seem to be very closely following suit to successful precedent. However, It is important to still treat this claim with caution until the requisite evidence is found and presented, thereby making the claim actionably conclusive.
The recent losses to the Islamic State, including its prominent holdings in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq have caused the organization to recede from the large swathes of territory it once held. The Islamic State now not only seems to be “stateless”, but even “leaderless”, as it is being forced to operate more asymmetrically like other organizations that preceded it, such as al-Qaeda. This change in the Islamic States modus operandi may also be a reason for the organization to suddenly be so apt in admitting the death of its leader with no real proof in evidence. It could be that Baghdadi is looking to retreat and regroup; realizing that the organizations original strategy of directly challenging countries like the U.S. and Russia as an illegitimate state actor with large holdings in territory and a standing military, had not been a wise choice.
Should the death of Baghdadi turn out to be factual, this would be a massive blow to the organization, and a significant political and military victory for Russia. However, with the two top contenders for succeeding Baghdadi being Ayad al-Jumaili and Iyad al-Obaidi, it is clear that the complete defeat of the Islamic State will take more than the death of just one of its leaders; even if that leader is the Caliph.