Claims of Al Baghdadi’s death have been made frequently in recent years, however, and Iraqi, Kurdish and US officials were unable to confirm the Observatory’s report on Tuesday
Syria monitor says it has 'confirmed information' ISIL chief Baghdadi is dead
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group claimed on Tuesday it had “confirmed information” that ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi had been killed in Syria.
If true, Al Baghdadi’s death would deal another major blow to ISIL — which has already lost Mosul in Iraq, the largest city under its control, and is taking major losses in its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in Syria — while also boosting the morale of the group’s many enemies. Claims of Al Baghdadi’s death have been made frequently in recent years, but Iraqi, Kurdish and US officials were unable to confirm the Observatory’s report on Tuesday.
The director of the UK-based monitor, Rami Abdul Rahman, told Reuters: “[We have] confirmed information from leaders, including one of the first rank, in the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor.”
While Mr Abdulrahman said his group had information of Al Baghdadi’s death, their sources did not specify when he died or how.
In a statement received by The National, US central command said it could not confirm the report "but hope[s] it is true".
“We strongly advise ISIS to implement a strong line of succession, it will be needed,” Centcom said.
In June, Russia said it may have killed Al Baghdadi during air strikes on ISIL commanders on the outskirts of Raqqa. After that claim, a Russian senator said the likelihood of Al Baghdadi being dead was “close to 100 per cent” while a representative of Iran’s supreme leader said the ISIL leader was “definitely dead”.
The US and others have cast doubt on Moscow’s claims, however.
The Iraqi-born Al Baghdadi declared an ISIL caliphate from Mosul’s ancient Grand Al Nuri mosque in June 2014 after his group made lightning gains across Syria and Iraq. At its height, ISIL’s territory stretched from the suburbs of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, to northern Syria's Aleppo province, controlling a huge swathe of territory.
The group enforced puritanical laws in areas it controlled with twisted forms of capital punishment, executing or enslaving members of other faiths and sects. Like-minded extremists from around the world migrated to ISIL-held territory to help the group expand the area under its control.
But faced with attacks from the US-led anti-ISIL coalition and its allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the extremist group has suffered major losses, forfeiting much of its territory. While fighting is still ongoing, the group that seemed to be an unstoppable behemoth in 2014 is today not even a shadow of its former self.
With Mosul lost and Raqqa completely encircled, it is believed that senior ISIL leaders have fled elsewhere. As the group's fighters in Raqqa face certain defeat, ISIL is looking to make another last stand at Deir Ezzor to the south-east — the area where the Observatory said Al Baghdadi was killed.
Elsewhere in Syria on Tuesday, rebels operating near a recently-declared ceasefire zone in southern Syria claimed they had shot down a Syrian government jet.
The Lions of the East Army and the Ahmad Al Abdo Forces said the jet crashed into regime-held territory. The Observatory said the plane was shot down on the border of Sweida province — one of three provinces included in a ceasefire agreement brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan.
While the ceasefire held strong on its first day on Sunday, some clashes broke out on Monday and Tuesday in areas covered by the truce.
The tensions in the ceasefire zone come as representatives of the Syrian government and opposition were in Geneva for the seventh round of UN-sponsored peace talks.
The ceasefire is the first example of close co-operation between the US and Russia in Syria, but the deal could be derailed if violence in the area continues.
* Additional reporting by Reuters