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ISIS leader may be dead, thanks to Russian military strike

thierry ehrmann-cc
Portrait of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

Baghdadi may have been at meeting outside Raqqa

Russia’s military said an airstrike it carried out may have killed the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been attending a meeting of ISIS leaders outside of Raqqa, Syria, the de facto “capital” of the Islamic State, when the Russian Air Force struck on May 28, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Raqqa has been in the crosshairs, as American-backed Kurdish and Arab ground forces have been closing in, and an American-led coalition of Western and Arab air forces has attacked the city from above.

Russia said in its statement: “According to information which we are checking through various channels, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was at the meeting and the strike destroyed him.”

The strike also killed 30 field commanders and as many as 300 fighters, Russia said.

Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the United States-led military coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, said in an email to the New York Times: “We cannot confirm these reports at this time.”

The Times provided background on Baghdadi, who is believed to have been born in Iraq in 1971:

After the United States invaded the country and toppled Mr. Hussein in 2003, Mr. Baghdadi spent years imprisoned at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

He emerged from the jumble of Sunni extremist elements that battled the American forces and Iraq’s new Shiite-led government in the decade after the invasion. The Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed Al Qaeda in Iraq, but he eventually fell out with Al Qaeda because his wanton killings of Shiites were too brutal even by Qaeda standards.

An American airstrike killed Mr. Zarqawi in June 2006. Four months later, his successors declared the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq. It was one of several Sunni groups fighting mostly in northern Iraq.

The American military and Sunni tribesmen, banded together in what became known as the Awakening, left Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadists in disarray by 2010, but with an American troop withdrawal looming in 2011, tensions between Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki soared.

Mr. Baghdadi was named the head of the Islamic State in 2010, and his group seemed particularly adroit at turning these tensions to its advantage. After the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Syria became a fertile ground for jihadists like Mr. Baghdadi, who exploited the power vacuum left by the violent challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The group also displayed a sophisticated command of social media to recruit potential jihadists from around the world, and to sow terror in the West.

Using porous borders between Syria and Iraq, the new jihadists overpowered Shiite-led authorities and rival Sunni factions in both countries, and established a stronghold in an overwhelmingly Sunni area. In the summer of 2014, the group declared itself a caliphate, a successor to early leaders of Islam.

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