On 28MAY2017 the Russian Ministry of Defense said that the Caliph or “leader” of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed as a result of targeted Russian airstrikes in Syria, along with up to 330 other fighters.
Interfax news agency, claiming to be quoting a senior Russian parliamentary official on Friday, said that “the likelihood that he [Baghdadi] had been killed was close to 100 percent”.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told reporters that he is still seeking out the facts of what had happened in these airstrikes, saying “I do not have 100% confirmation of the information about the elimination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the international coalition that is responsible for combating the Islamic State, said during a pentagon briefing that “we do not have any concrete evidence on whether or not he [Baghdadi] is dead.”
According to local sources on the ground in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, the Islamic State has informed its elements in the city of Tal Afar that it will be issuing an “important declaration” about its leader. Although no one knows for sure what the statement is going to be, everyone believes that it will contain news either confirming or denying al-Baghdadi’s death.
Alsumaria news has also claimed, according to its local sources, that the Islamic States top preacher was arrested and burned alive over charges of sedition for having led a prayer sermon in which he suggested the death of Baghdadi. After the immolation, local Islamic States officials asserted that a punishment of 50 lashes was to be applied to anyone questioning the survival of Baghdadi.
This claim by Russia is the first time it has said that it may have killed the Caliph of the Islamic State during one of its military air campaigns. There have been many other media reports over the years claiming that Baghdadi had been killed or critically injured in a variety of separate incidents, but none of these claims turned out to be substantive and effectual.
The Islamic State has never been quick to confirm the death of its major leadership components, mostly only going so far as to announce these deaths in a delayed or subtle way; usually during general messages to the public or by attributing names of military campaigns to the deceased leader.
If the Russian military turns out to actually have killed the leader of the Islamic State, this would be a massive blow to the organization. It would also be happening at a time when the Islamic State has been rapidly losing territory across both Syria and Iraq. The expected total loss by the Islamic State of Raqqa in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq, would mark the end of the Islamic “State” as a land force, and push it into becoming an underground terrorist organization much like al-Qaeda.
This targeted strike by Russia would also have highly favorable political outcomes for the country. Having successfully killed a figure that the United States and the rest of the International coalition failed to dispatch collectively, with a much higher budget, better logistics and international support, would put Russia in an elevated international standing with regards to its credibility and perceived competence in its military and intelligence capability.
Specialists who are keen on the membership and interworkings of the Islamic State are not confident in who they think the terrorist group would be selecting for its new leadership, should Caliph Baghdadi turn out to have actually been killed in the strike. The two top contenders that seem to be most likely are Ayad al-Jumaili and Iyad al-Obaidi, however these two choices would not be likely to assume the high title of Caliph. These two individuals are top lieutenants in the Islamic State, and are also remnants from the the old Iraqi Army that had existed under the control of late dictator Saddam Husain.
Ever since Baghdadi placed himself on top as Caliph of the Islamic State, this figure has remained very elusive to both his enemies and his own community. The whereabouts of Baghdadi have not been known since October 2016, where he was believed to have been in Mosul right before the U.S.-led coalition began its effort to reclaim the city. His last public appearance was in a video where he had been delivering a sermon in Mosul on 5MAY2014, and his last audio message to his membership was released on 2NOV2016.
The historical function of “Caliph” was a very public and vital position in Islamic Empires. The title of “Caliph” has been around since shortly after the death of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in 632CE. The abrupt death of the Prophet triggered an immediate need for a central figure to lead the fledgling Muslim community or “Umma”, and ensure its future success. Much later, during the Ottoman Empire of 1299-1922, which had been a Turkish Islamic Empire that ruled over todays predominant Arab Muslim world, there was a secularization period before the empires dissolution after WWI. This involved the abolition of the Caliphate under Kemal Ataturk, for the purpose of reformation and ultimately secularization of the Turkish State along Western lines.
When the new Islamic State entered the scene in early 2014, many in the Muslim world had welcomed the reemergence and continuation of the Caliphate; but they did not anticipate the abhorrent and un-Islamic scorched earth policy this organization would take. The death of Caliph Baghdadi and his Islamic State would prove to be a welcomed and necessary demise to an organization with no place in the modern global system.