Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, has reportedly been injured in a US-led airstrike. What does this mean for the future of the terrorist group?
On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS) has been seriously wounded in an airstrike in Iraq. However, the Pentagon has called into question the accuracy of the report.
The US-led airstrike took place on March 18 and aimed to destroy a three-car convoy between the Umm al-Rous and al-Qaraan villages in Northern Iraq, close to the Syrian border. Both a western diplomat and an Iraqi adviser confirmed that a strike did take place on that date in the al-Baaj district of Nineveh, according to The Guardian.
“Yes, [the ISIS leader] was wounded in al-Baaj near the village of Umm al-Rous on 18 March with a group that was with him,” Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi official who advises Baghdad on ISIS, told the Guardian.
Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, a spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry, agreed with Mr. Hashimi, telling BBC News Tuesday that Baghdadi had been seriously injured in a coalition air strike in March.
However, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the US military has no knowledge of Baghdadi’s being hurt and he was not the target of the March 18 airstrikes. Colonel Warren separately told the Daily Beast “We have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi.”
The operation was targeting local ISIS leaders and killed three men. Officials were unaware that Baghdadi was in one of the three cars. Baghdadi has been slowly recovering from unspecified injuries, which were originally thought to be life threatening, reported The Guardian.
Baghdadi has reportedly been spending a lot of time in the al-Baaj area, a Sunni tribal region about 200 miles west of the Islamic State headquarters in Mosul. It has been a stronghold for jihadists since 2004 and was outside of state control even under former leader Saddam Hussein’s rule.
“He chose this area because he knew from the war that the Americans did not have much cover there,” said a source privy to some of Baghdadi’s movements. “From 2003 (the US military) barely had a presence there. It was the one part of Iraq that they hadn’t mapped out.”
Imported goods and weapons traveled freely between Syria and northern Iraq through al-Baaj before the United States began monitoring the area earlier this year, the Guardian reported.
Before Baghdadi began to recover, the leadership reportedly was scrambling to find someone who could replace him as head of the Islamic State. Baghdadi has not resumed the day-to-day operations of the organization and in the past few weeks. Islamic State military and Shura councils have taken on more of the decision-making since the March 18 airstrike.
There have been several previously inaccurate reports that Baghdadi was injured. But if the reports are accurate this time, that Baghdadi is in fact injured, it comes at a time when the Islamic State has suffered setbacks. A series of successful airstrikes have taken out a number of the terrorist organization’s leaders, including Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Baghdadi’s deputy; and the head of Islamic State military operations in Iraq.
The terrorist group has also been losing ground and influence in Iraq and Syria in battles with local military groups. With the help of the Iraqi military, for example, Shiite militias took the city of Tikrit in March, and the Kurds in the north reclaimed 12 square miles of land in January. Ultimately, Iraqi troops are expected prepare for an assault on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where the Islamic State continues to maintain control.