- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2017

U.S. intelligence officials are skeptical of Russia’s claim that its military killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with an airstrike in late May along with other senior commanders of the terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

“We recommend proceeding with caution” toward the claim that al-Baghdadi, who declared an ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June 2014, has been killed,” one official told The Washington Times on Friday.

“This is coming from the ministry of defense [in Moscow], so there is reason to view it with caution,” added the official, who suggested Russian military officials may be trying to take credit for killing the ISIS leader without absolute evidence that he’s dead.

“There are reports of his death it seems every other week,” the official said, referring to past claims by the Moscow-backed Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, whose state-controlled media began claiming last week that al-Baghdadi had been killed in an airstrike near ISIS’ de facto headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.

There have also been been several previous reports of al-Baghdadi being killed, but they did not turn out to be true. The ISIS leader last released an audio recording on Nov. 3, urging his followers to keep up the fight for the Iraqi city of Mosul and counter a major U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive against the city that began weeks later.

The elusive Al-Baghdadi is believed to have made his last public appearance roughly three years ago at a mosque in Mosul.

Other national security sources told said Friday that if the Russian military’s claims about al-Baghdadi’s death are true, it would represent the biggest blow yet to ISIS, which is struggling to keep its hold on territory in Syria and Iraq amid growing pressure from forces backed by a range of international and regional powers.

The Russian military, which has conducted a military campaign in support of the Assad regime since September 2015, said an air raid on May 28 that targeted an ISIS meeting held on the southern outskirts of Raqqa also killed about 30 mid-level militant leaders and about 300 other fighters.

The Russian ministry said that among other militant leaders killed in the raid were ISIS leaders Abu al-Khadji al-Mysri, Ibrahim al-Naef al-Khadj and Suleiman al-Shauah.

According to The Associated Press, the ministry said the ISIS leaders were gathered to discuss the group’s withdrawal from Raqqa. It said the Russian military began planning the hit after getting word that the group’s leadership was to meet in order to plan ISIS’ exit to the south.

The Russian military sent drones to monitor the area and then dispatched a group of Su-34 bombers and Su-35 fighter jets to hit the ISIS gathering.

“According to the information that is being verified through various channels, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also attended the meeting and was killed in the airstrike,” the military said in a statement, according to the AP.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition said in a statement Friday he could not confirm the Russian claim.

The report of al-Baghdadi’s death comes as ISIS suffers major setbacks in which they have lost wide areas of territory and both of their strongholds — Mosul in Iraq and Syria’s Raqqa. Both are under attack by various groups who are fighting under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials, meanwhile, have described al-Baghdadi as the cutthroat and unconditionally feared head of ISIS, whose secretive posture has stood in contrast to such past Islamic extremist terrorist leaders as Osama bin Laden — out of whose al Qaeda network ISIS emerged.

Images of bin Laden wearing a signature beard, turban and flowing white robes became known around globe after 9/11, but al-Baghdadi’s rise onto the global jihadist stage following bin Laden’s 2011 death was more shadowy.

Few confirmed photographs of the ISIS leader exist. One, a grainy passport-style headshot of a youngish Arab man with closely cropped hair, an intense stare and an Al Capone-like smirk on his lips, sits atop al-Baghdadi’s declassified case file at the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program.

Believed to be in his 40s, al-Baghdadi turned to extremism and terror during the years of post/9-11 U.S. military occupation in Iraq. He is believed to have previously earned a degree in Islamic studies from the University of Baghdad, as well as a doctorate in Koranic studies from Iraq’s Saddam University.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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