US national security officials were quick to discount – and even mock – reports from Moscow that the Russian military had killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a May 28 strike.
“We have no information to corroborate those reports,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Friday. In Baghdad, a spokesperson for the coalition fighting ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria dismissed the report, but noted in a tweet that the US would “welcome that day.”
At the Pentagon, there was no sense of a military scurrying to confirm or deny the reports. Rather, the news was not met with much more than a shrug.
Why are US officials so certain the Russian reports are wrong?
For one, the Russian military claimed to have killed Baghdadi more than two weeks ago, and yet there has been no chatter among ISIS operatives, either publicly or privately, about Baghdadi's death or who would replace him. Four US officials told BuzzFeed News they have picked up no evidence from ISIS of a change.
Russia also said it killed Baghdadi while he was meeting with at least 100 ISIS members near the self-proclaimed capital of the caliphate, Raqqa, Syria. But US military officials note that even lower-level ISIS members do not meet in large groups — let alone a group of a hundred with one of the most wanted men on the planet. Moreover, over the past few months, the US military has said that top ISIS leaders, and even relatively minor bureaucrats, have moved away from Raqqa in anticipation of Kurdish and Arab forces launching a ground campaign to reclaim the city, backed up by US-led coalition airstrikes. Indeed, when the US military announced the start of the campaign to liberate Raqqa earlier this month, it could not even say for certain that Raqqa still serves as ISIS’s capital.
US military officials believe that top ISIS leaders have moved to the Syrian cities of Deir Ezzour and Mayadin. But US officials stopped short of dismissing the report altogether, because it is difficult to disprove such a claim.
After all, “if we knew where he was, we’d kill him,” one military official told BuzzFeed News.
The Russians have made similar claims in the past, US officials said. As US intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News, the Russian Ministry of Defense “has been known to lie.”
And Baghdadi has been reported dead more than once.
On Friday, the Russian military said it was investigating whether a May 28 strike in the desert killed Baghdadi, who declared himself leader of the then-little known spinoff of al-Qaeda in 2013. Russia said it has yet to confirm his death.
“According to information which we are checking through various channels, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was at the meeting and the strike destroyed him,” a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense read.
If the Russians did kill Baghdadi, it would mark a major blow to the militant group, which has watched its territory shrink in the past year. With each city lost, ISIS loses the ability to plot attacks, US officials have said. Moreover, the loss of terrain has slowed the flow of foreign fighters.
The three-year US-led airstrike campaign against ISIS has reportedly killed scores of ISIS leaders. Because of that, there is no clear figure to replace Baghdadi.
While the US said it has no evidence that Russia killed Baghdadi, it is in America's interest to dismiss such reports. If a three-year US-led campaign had missed the top ISIS leader meeting with 100 followers in the capital of his caliphate, all during a campaign targeting the city, it would be deeply embarrassing for the US military effort.
Baghdadi hasn’t exactly been in the spotlight over the last few months. The leader last made a public statement in November, as Iraqi forces began their push to reclaim the nation’s second-largest city, Mosul, from ISIS. In an audio message, Baghdadi urged supporters to fight to the death for the city.
“Do not retreat … Holding your ground with honor is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame,” he said at the time.
US military officials have said that the battle for Mosul is in its final stages.