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[MOSCOW] Russia is verifying intelligence that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed near Raqqa, Syria, during a bombing raid by its forces in May, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Al-Baghdadi could have been among about 30 Islamic State commanders killed by the attack on a meeting of the group in the early hours of May 28, the ministry said in an emailed statement. Reports of al-Baghdadi's death "are being verified by various channels," it said, without elaborating. The ministry provided no explanation for the delay in reporting the strike, which it said also killed about 300 Islamic State fighters.
Both Captain Jeff Davis, a US Defense Department spokesman, and US Army Col Ryan Dillon - spokesman for the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition - said they could not confirm the reports.
Russia didn't have more clarity on the issue later in the day, when President Vladimir Putin met with members of his Security Council. There, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported on the strike and the "possible" killing of al-Baghdadi, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Tass. The official Kremlin account of the Security Council meeting made no mention of al-Baghdadi, saying only that a number of Islamic State commanders could have been killed.
Islamic State has lost vast swathes of territory as US-backed local forces and allied militia fight to remove it from both Iraq and Syria, where Russian forces have also been engaged in propping up President Bashar al-Assad. The jihadist group is holed up in its self-declared capital of Raqqa, a city it has brutalised since 2013 and used as a base to plot terrorist attacks in Europe, and in Mosul - where the operation to retake Iraq's second-largest city has been bogged down in street-by-street fighting for months.
But while Islamic State is on the back foot and al-Baghdadi - who announced the caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014 - is its iconic leader, the group would not be fatally weakened by his loss, said analysts including Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
"Islamic State is an ideology and that will sustain such a blow," Nader said by phone on Friday. "The infrastructure or the network on the ground might be hit, but this group is a cell-generating network. Al-Baghdadi was a caliph, but this position is replaceable."
Since he appeared in a video in Mosul announcing the caliphate, Al-Baghdadi has been rarely seen and often on the move between hiding places in Iraq and Syria. Extremists linked to the group have proliferated and murdered hundreds in London, Ankara, Beirut, Brussels and Paris as well as in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The group claimed responsibility for twin attacks in Tehran this month.
There was no statement from Islamic State or other jihadist groups on Friday regarding his status.
"If the Russian airstrike has indeed killed al-Baghdadi, it may not be the success story that we have hoped," Natasha Underhill, a lecturer in international relations at Nottingham Trent University specialising in terrorism, said by email. Islamic State and al-Qaeda differ in terms of how important the leadership is to the group, so the death of al-Baghdadi wouldn't have the same impact as Osama bin Laden's did, she said.
Al-Baghdadi "stays in the background," she said. "The group does not reply on him alone for guidance." There have previously been unconfirmed reports, including in March 2015 and in June 2016, that al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded in airstrikes carried out by US-led coalition forces. In March 2017, US defense officials said he left Mosul before Iraqi forces began their offensive to remove the group from Iraq's second-largest city.
The US-backed forces have made significant advances against Islamic State in Raqqa, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the battlefield situation through a network of activists on the ground. The fighters, made up of mainly Kurdish fighters, have this week reached the gates of Raqqa's old city. From the south, Syrian government forces are pushing into the group's stronghold as well.
There was no Russian airstrike on Raqqa on May 28, according to the SOHR's head, Rami Abdurrahman. He said that all the top leaders of Islamic State are thought to be in an area between the Iraqi border and Deir Ezzor, which is about 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.
Russia's Defense Ministry said it had notified the US about the bombing raid in advance. The ministry later released aerial photos of what it said was the area hit in the May raid, showing several buildings had been destroyed.
"The timing of the statement suggests that if they did actually kill him, that was not intentional - he was there at that militant meeting by coincidence," said Anton Lavrov, an independent military analyst.
"I think they've just received some intelligence from a source they consider reliable and decided to share that with the world."