WASHINGTON – The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS does not have concrete information on whether ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead or alive, the top U.S. commander overseeing the battle in Iraq and Syria said Tuesday, after an international monitor said it had information confirming his death.
“Despite all the helpful reports to us from every source imaginable, I’m unable to confirm or deny either where he is or whether he is alive or dead. Let me just say for the record my fervent hope is it is the latter,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said during a news briefing at the Pentagon via teleconference.
“… I don’t have a clue, simple as that. Don’t know if he’s alive, don’t know if he’s dead. I don’t know where he is alive. I don’t know where his dead body is.”
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.
Baghdadi has been reported dead on several occasions. Most recently, there were reports that he was killed in an airstrike in Iraq’s Nineveh province. In June, the Russian Defense Ministry said that it might have killed Baghdadi when an airstrike hit a gathering of ISIS commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Townsend said that Baghdadi’s death might not mean much strategically for the fight against ISIS since the group has a succession of command that would be implemented, and U.S. officials have said in the past that its unclear how much command and control Baghdadi has over ISIS in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
Townsend said Tuesday that, no matter, confirmation of Baghdadi’s death would likely be a morale boost for the U.S.-led coalition and its partnered Iraqi and Syrian forces.
“It’d make me feel better to know that he was dead… Someone is guiding ISIS, the organization. And what we have seen with all these paramount leaders is you take them out, and someone else steps up,” he said. “So, if he is dead, that means someone is running ISIS and I think that they’re trying to keep it quiet for their own morale… It would probably uplift, I think, our partners.”
Townsend said in March that nearly all of Baghdadi’s inner circle has been killed.
On Monday, the Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition declared defeat over ISIS in the city of Mosul, marking the largest defeat to date of the terror group that first declared the creation of its self-styled caliphate from the same city three years ago.
Townsend said that remaining pockets of ISIS fighters in western Mosul, the presence of which are both known and unknown, are still being cleared by from the city. He said civilians are already returning to western Mosul, much of which lies in ruin.
The hard-line Islamist group still controls significant territory south and west of Mosul — including in the cities of Tal Afar and Hawija and the Western Anbar region — and has proven the ability to continue to carry out attacks in government-held areas after they are retaken.