Downplaying conflicting reports about the fate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State group -- the Pentagon said on Tuesday that there was no evidence that he had been injured in coalition airstrikes. The comments came just hours after the Guardian and the BBC published reports, citing Iraqi and Western officials, that the ISIS leader had been “seriously wounded” in an airstrike in March.
“We have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told the Daily Beast on Tuesday. Speaking to reporters in Washington, he added that though similar reports had emerged last month, al-Baghdadi had not been the target of that airstrike.
The Guardian reported on Tuesday that al-Baghdadi had been wounded during an airstrike on a convoy of vehicles between the Iraqi villages of Umm al-Rous and al-Qaraan, located in the sparsely populated district of al-Baaj, close to the Syrian border. The attack, which allegedly took place on March 18, is believed to have killed three men whose identities were not revealed.
“He (al-Baghdadi) chose this area because he knew from the war that the Americans did not have much cover there,” an unnamed source told the Guardian. The Sunni tribal area of al-Baaj is located about 200 miles west of the ISIS stronghold of Mosul. “From 2003 (the US military) barely had a presence there. It was the one part of Iraq that they hadn’t mapped out.”
According to the Guardian, al-Baghdadi’s injuries were initially thought to be life-threatening and other ISIS leaders had even made plans to name a new leader. Although he has since recovered, he is still not in charge of the group’s day-to-day activities, the report said.
This is not the first time that reports of the reclusive leader -- dubbed the “invisible sheikh” -- being wounded or killed have surfaced. In November, following rumors that he had been killed in a U.S. airstrike, al-Baghdadi released an audio tape, calling on his followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad” across the world.