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Back in June last year the Russian Ministry of Defence published a claim that a meeting of ISIS commanders in May in the then besieged ISIS ‘capital’ of Raqqa included no less a person than ISIS’s leader – Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi – himself.
The meeting was apparently called to plan the escape of ISIS’s top leaders from Raqqa. Of these the most important obviously is Al-Baghdadi himself, which was presumably why he attended the meeting.
Russian intelligence apparently got wind of the meeting, and the building in Raqqa where it took place was destroyed in an air strike carried out by a Russian SU-34 fighter bomber belonging to the Russian Aerospace Forces.
The Russians subsequently claimed that Al-Baghdadi himself was killed in the air strike along with a number of other top ISIS officials.
The claim received corroboration from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but it was refuted by US and Iraqi officials, and I myself expressed skepticism about it on the grounds that Al-Baghdadi’s pivotal role in ISIS as its erstwhile “Caliph” meant his death would be expected to have a more visible effect on the organisation than appeared to be the case.
Subsequently in September 2017 a recording of Al-Baghdadi speaking was released by ISIS, in which he discussed events which had taken place after the Russian air strike and his reported death, which confirmed that he was still alive and which showed that the Russian claim that he was dead was wrong.
Recent reports however suggest that parts of the claim made by the Russians in June may have been true after all.
US and Iraqi sources now suggest that Al-Baghdadi was indeed caught up in an air strike in Raqqa in May – just as the Russians claim – and that he was severely injured as a result of that air strike, though he was not actually killed.
Supposedly Al-Baghdadi’s injuries were so severe that he had to surrender operational control of ISIS to his subordinates for five months.
The leader of Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate”, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is alive but so seriously injured by an airstrike last year that he was unable to run the organisation for five months, according to new reports.
American and Iraqi officials quoted by Iraqi media and CNN said Baghdadi was seriously injured in May last year. They said the information was gleaned from Isis captives currently being interrogated after being captured as the “caliphate” began to collapse.
“We have irrefutable information and documents from sources within the terrorist organisation that Baghdadi is still alive and hiding,” said Abu Ali al-Basri, head of the Iraqi interior ministry’s intelligence and counter-terrorism department…..
In June last year, Russia and the Syrian regime said they thought he had been killed in a Russian air strike on May 28. American officials at the time said they had no evidence to corroborate the report, and the Russians never released the source of their information.
The new information, which seems to have caught US officials by surprise, raises the possibility that the Russian strike did at least hit the target. However, in confirming the story to CNN, they said it was still unclear when and by whom Baghdadi had been hit….
The officials said he had been badly enough injured to have to give up daily operational control of the organisation. However, he had now recovered to some extent, they believe.
The Iraqi officials said he had been treated in a hospital facility in area under Isis control. Mr Basri said he was unable to walk without assistance, had several broken bones and was additionally suffering from diabetes……
There is an outside possibility – if this story is true – that the air strike that injured Al-Baghdadi was not the Russian air strike which took place on 28th May 2017 but a different air strike carried out by someone else.
Given however that the Russians claim that Al-Baghdadi was caught up in their air strike on 28th May 2017, and given the confirmation that the air strike which wounded Al-Baghdadi took place in May 2017 – the same month as the Russian air strike – the overwhelming likelihood must be that it was indeed the Russian air strike in which Al-Baghdadi was caught up and which so severely injured him.
If so then that might explain some of the confusion in the initial reports coming out of the Middle East following the Russian claim.
As I discussed in this article, reports from several different sources – not just the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – appeared to confirm in the weeks following the Russian claim that Al-Baghdadi was dead.
After Al-Baghdadi resurfaced in September I speculated that these reports were a false trail intentionally laid by ISIS to facilitate Al-Baghdadi’s escape from Mosul or Raqqa or wherever else he had been hiding.
The latest reports about the injuries he suffered as a result of the Russian air strike suggest that the true reason they spread was because his injuries were so severe that they sparked for a time rumours that he was dead.
In that case the broadcast in September was intended to reassure his followers that he was in fact alive.
If these latest reports are true – and it seems likely that they are true – then they show that the Russians do indeed have access to intelligence from the very heart of ISIS’s organisation.
Not only did the Russians learn about the meeting in Raqqa in advance so that they were able to carry out an air strike against it, but their intelligence operation against ISIS is apparently good enough to enable them to learn correctly who was present at the meeting and to establish that Al-Baghdadi himself was one of those present and was caught up in the air strike.
The fact that the Russians mistakenly thought that Al-Baghdadi had actually been killed does not detract from this success, especially given the confusion within ISIS itself in the weeks which followed about whether Al-Baghdadi was in fact alive or dead.
Al-Bagdhadi’s incapacity may also have played a part in the sudden collapse in ISIS resistance in eastern and central Syria during the period from May to November. His apparent recovery since November may also in part explain the small recovery in ISIS’s fortunes which has taken place since November.
However the most interesting – and worrying – part of The Times of London report is the following one
“We have irrefutable information and documents from sources within the terrorist organisation that Baghdadi is still alive and hiding,” said Abu Ali al-Basri, head of the Iraqi interior ministry’s intelligence and counter-terrorism department.
He said Baghdadi was hiding in the Jazeera region, a desert area of the central Euphrates Valley in eastern Syria close to the Iraqi border. It is one of three enclaves in Syria still controlled by Isis, though it is entirely surrounded by Iraqi government-controlled territory on one side and fighters from the Kurdish-led, US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces on the other.
(bold italics added)
If Al-Baghdadi’s hideout is totally surrounded by US backed forces – the Iraqi army in the east, the US backed Syrian Kurdish fighters in the west – why is nothing apparently being done to track him down and capture him? Surely that ought to be the priority?