WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that he has no information on whether ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, after an international monitor said Tuesday that it had information confirming his death.
“I honestly don’t know right now and we don’t speculate in the U.S. military. If we knew we would tell you. Right now I can’t confirm or deny it,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “Our approach is we assume he’s alive until it’s proven otherwise, and right now I can’t prove it otherwise.”
Rami Abdulrahman, director of the U.K.-based war monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters Tuesday that his group had “confirmed information” from ISIS leaders in the eastern Syrian town of Deir al-Zor that Baghdadi has been killed. Abdulrahman told Reuters that the sources said Baghdadi had been in Deir al-Zor for the past three months and that Baghdadi had died, but not when or how.
The commander of the counter-ISIS mission, U.S. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said Tuesday that Baghdadi’s death would likely be a morale boost for the U.S.-led coalition and its partnered Iraqi and Syrian forces. He said that it was unclear what strategic effect his death would have on the fight against ISIS, since the group has a succession of command that would be implemented.
Mattis said Friday that Baghdadi’s death would mark a blow to ISIS, even if the group continues to carry out attacks.
“It has an impact to take out the leaders and it always does in war,” said Mattis. “… We continue to fight people who for whatever excuse, whatever reason, whatever rationale, whatever lie about their religion decide they’re going to kill women and children — we’re going to go after them. That’s the bottom line. We don’t buy anything about religion allowing that sort of thing, and so we’ll go after him until he’s gone.”
The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition met in Washington, D.C. this week. Ethiopia announced that it was joining the coalition, joining recent additions Chad, Niger and Dijibouti. The coalition is now comprised of 72 countries and 4 international organizations — Interpol, the Arab League, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The government of Iraq and the coalition dealt ISIS a blow the week, retaking the city of Mosul. It marked the largest defeat to date of the terror group. Mosul once was the largest populated area under the group’s control, and Baghdadi first declared the creation of the self-styled caliphate from the city’s now destroyed Great Mosque of al-Nuri three years ago.
In Syria, the coalition and its Syrian partners, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have also made gains against ISIS, overcoming defensive barricades, IED belts, snipers, armored vehicles and suicide attacks to penetrate the city center of the city of Raqqa. Raqqa was once considered the group’s de-facto capital.
ISIS has since moved administrative functions of the caliphate out of Raqqa and down the Euphrates River Valley to the cities of Mayadin and Deir al-Zour, U.S. officials have said.
Since operations against the group began in late 2014, 65,000 square kilometers have been cleared of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. No ground taken in coalition-enabled operations has been ceded back to ISIS.