Syrian state media reported over the weekend that the leader of the Islamic State, “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed by an airstrike on the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
As the UK Daily Mail notes, there is ample reason to be skeptical of the claim, since Baghdadi’s death or serious injury has been reported on several previous occasions. The world’s most wanted terrorist long ago learned to make himself a moving target.
In fact, Reuters published an article on his elusive ways on Sunday, quoting security experts who predicted it might take years to capture him or confirm his death. Analysts quoted in the piece thought he was more likely to be moving around the hinterlands of the Syria-Iraq border, “where drones and strangers are easy to spot,” than lurking in Raqqa while adversaries surround the city and disenchanted ISIS supporters ponder the $25 million reward on his head.
One theory of Baghdadi’s movements holds that he was originally headquartered in Mosul, from which he declared the existence of the Islamic State “caliphate” and was never quite able to make it to Raqqa after he escaped from Iraq and headed back into Syria.
With this in mind, the Daily Mail notes that Syrian activists groups say there was an airstrike on Raqqa on Saturday, one of several during the past week that appeared to employ white phosphorous munitions. Use of white phosphorus over civilian areas is banned under international law, because it tends to start random and difficult-to-control fires, but the Islamic State’s media organization Amaq has claimed the U.S.-led coalition is bombing Raqqa with such weapons.
The U.S. military says it uses white phosphorus “in accordance with the law of armed conflict for screening, obscuring, and marking in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures.”
Bizarrely, the New York Times reported this claim under the headline: “U.S.-Led Forces Said to Have Used White Phosphorus in Syria,” without mentioning until the fourth paragraph that ISIS is the primary source of the claim.
As of Monday afternoon, there has been no statement from the Islamic State or its media wing concerning Baghdadi’s possible death and no comment from the U.S. military.