The top American commander in the fight against the Islamic State said Tuesday that the elusive leader of the terrorist group, who has been hunted for years, may finally appear to be, well, no longer alive.
Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend didn’t go as far to say that he believes Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is actually dead, but he did acknowledge in a briefing with Pentagon reporters that he has not seen evidence that he is still around.
"I really don’t know … I don’t have reason to believe that he’s alive. I don’t have proof of life," Townsend said in the furthest U.S. officials have gone in the wake of repeated reports that the terrorist leader has been taken out.
Reports that Baghdadi has met his demise have been numerous and unsubstantiated. The latest claim is that the mastermind of the so-called caliphate he declared in parts of Iraq and Syria was killed in an air strike in Iraq’s Nineveh province. There were also reports in mid-June that Russia killed him in an airstrike on Raqqah in Syria.
The Tampa-based U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East, has issued a statement saying "we cannot confirm this report, but hope it is true." Nor has ISIS itself, which has a far-reaching media arm, officially confirmed Baghdadi’s death.
But Townsend’s comments suggest that U.S. intelligence is beginning to strongly suspect that Baghdadi has been a casualty of the three-year-old U.S.-led military campaign.
Many details of the elusive terrorist leader’s life remain unclear. The Islamic State leader was reportedly born north of Baghdad in 1971 and is thought to have served as a cleric in a mosque in the city around the time U.S. forces invaded in 2003. Some believe that he was radicalized during his time at Camp Bucca, a U.S. detention center in Iraq where many now-leaders of ISIS were once held.
He served as the leader of Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq before becoming the head of the Islamic State, making a July 4, 2014, speech on the steps of the Al-Nuri mosque in Mosul to declare the caliphate.
In December, the State Department upped the reward for information leading to the capture or death of the ISIS leader to $25 million.
It’s unclear how much influence Baghdadi has had over the command and control of the Islamic State, which has also extended its influence to other countries such as Libya and Afghanistan.
Col. Ryan Dillon, the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, said last month that the U.S. military does not believe he has been able to play a role in current operations to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul or Raqqah, the group’s Syria headquarters.
Townsend said in March that nearly all of Baghdadi’s inner circle has been killed.
Yet if the terrorist kingpin is truly dead it may not entirely be good news, said Frederick Kagan, a national security strategist at the American Enterprise Institute who has advised U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He transformed the discussion behind the Salafi-jihadi community by declaring himself caliph. That was huge,” said Kagan, who previously taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “It changed recruiting but it also split the movement more dramatically than any other figure I can think of.”
“He has been the driving force behind the schism between Al Qaeda and ISIS so I think we need to recognize his passing could be a potentially dangerous moment for us because it may very well consolidate the movement under Al Qaeda leadership,” he added.
Kagan is among those who believe the United States has focused too heavily on the ISIS threat in recent years at the expense of Al Qaeda, which perpetrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and other militant groups.
“ISIS and al-Baghdadi in some respects have been a distraction from the larger Salafi-jihadi threat,” he said. “Our entire military strategy seems to revolve around killing ISIS. Al Qaeda is stronger than it has ever been in its history.”
He cited the older group’s ability to gain more popular support within the Sunni Muslim community through its inserting itself into local conflicts on the side of populations that feel oppressed — and coming off as the moderate alternative to the more brutal ISIS.
“It has a much higher degree of popular support than it has ever had,” Kagan asserts. “This [killing of Baghdadi] may well have a perverse effect of strengthening Al Qaeda.”