A couple of weeks ago the Russian Defence Ministry circulated reports that the leader of ISIS and its self-styled ‘Caliph’ – the man who previously called himself Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi – had been killed in a Russian air strike on a building in Raqqa where a number of top ISIS commanders where holding a meeting.
The Russians have since claimed that as well as Al-Baghdadi thirty other top ISIS commanders and 300 ISIS fighters were also killed in the air strike.
Though the Russians appeared confident of their claim, doubt was cast on it by the US and the Kurds whilst I myself was frankly skeptical. My reasons were that there seemed no slackening in ISIS’s fighting capacity as I would have expected if Al-Baghdadi were really dead.
However over the last few weeks more and more evidence has piled up which seems to corroborate the Russian claim.
(1) there have been unconfirmed reports from Turkey that Turkish military intelligence has been informed by its agents in Syria that Al-Baghdadi is dead;
(2) the Iranians claim that an ISIS document has been found by Iraqi troops in a basement in Mosul which confirms Al-Baghdadi’s death but which gives instructions that news of his death is to be kept secret because of its potential effect on the morale of ISIS’s fighters;
(3) the Iranian news agency Fars says a report purportedly originating with ISIS has been published by the Arabic-language al-Nashrah news website apparently confirming Al-Baghdadi’s death and saying ISIS will shortly announce his successor; and
(4) most dramatically, the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it has received confirmation from ISIS’s top leadership in Deir Ezzor province that Al-Baghdadi is indeed dead. Here is how Reuters reports its claim
“(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,” said Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the British-based war monitoring group.
(bold italics added)
Despite claims to the contrary ISIS itself has not publicly confirmed Al-Baghdadi’s death. There has been no announcement of it by ISIS’s “news agency” Amaq or by any other outlet directly controlled by ISIS.
This is of course consistent with what the document found in the basement in Mosul says: that ISIS is trying to keep news of Al-Baghdadi’s death secret to prevent it harming the morale of its fighters. However in the absence of any formal confirmation from ISIS that Al-Baghdadi is dead it remains just possible that he is still alive and that the reports are wrong.
The evidence that Al-Baghdadi is dead is however now mounting up, and the strong balance of probability must now therefore be in favour of him being dead.
One further fact makes me think Al-Baghdadi is dead. This is that Jihadi sites now refer to him as ISIS’s ’emir’. This is a major downgrade from Caliph, the title he claimed, which suggests that since his death even ISIS now acknowledges that he was never truly the Caliph.
If Al-Baghdadi is dead then there is no reason to doubt that the original Russian report was true, and that he was killed in the Russian air strike on the building in Raqqa just as the Russian Defence Ministry says.
Claims that he was killed elsewhere and not by the Russians are unproven and unconvincing, and in the absence of any evidence or convincing alternative explanation of how else he might have been killed there is no reason to doubt that the Russian claim is true or to take the alternative claims seriously.
There are three further points to make about this affair:
(1) If Al-Baghdadi was killed in the Russian air strike, then the fact that the Russians were able to confirm the fact provides further proof that they have successfully penetrated ISIS‘s organisation, and have access to ISIS’s most important secrets;
(2) That ISIS continues to function, and is still fighting effectively despite Al-Baghdadi’s death, shows that it still has an organised leadership whose authority and legitimacy is accepted throughout the organisation, and whose orders are obeyed by its fighters. That is an important fact which points to the organisation’s resilience;
(3) The most interesting fact of all must however be that the much touted Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has now publicly admitted that it is in contact with the top level of ISIS’s leadership.
I am astonished that more has not been made of this.
Throughout the Syrian conflict the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has been the Western media’s go-to source for news about the Syrian conflict.
This was not altogether wrong. Though there has been much mockery of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as “one man and a laptop”, it has been obvious throughout the Syrian conflict that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights does indeed have well-placed sources in Syria.
However it now turns out that these “well-placed sources in Syria” include the leadership of ISIS itself, ie. of the most dangerous and murderous terrorist organisation on the planet.
I have no idea who the people behind the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are, though like many people I have heard some interesting stories about them. However in light of their admission that they are in contact with ISIS, shouldn’t MI6 and the British police be paying them a visit?