ARLINGTON, Va. — The commander of U.S. operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria said today that he’s unable to confirm anything about the whereabouts or status of self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“Despite all the helpful reports to us from every source imaginable, I’m unable to confirm or deny where he is or whether he is alive or dead,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, told Pentagon reporters via video link from Baghdad. “Let me just say for the record, my fervent hope is it is the latter.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today they had confirmed al-Baghdadi was killed in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. The group said they didn’t know how the ISIS leader died, but said they got the information from leaders in the terror group. ISIS’ Amaq news agency hasn’t confirmed or denied the news; the ISIS magazine that is usually published in the first week of each month, Rumiyah, hasn’t been released.
Russia claimed last month that they may have killed al-Baghdadi, but neither the Pentagon nor Iraqi officials confirmed that.
Townsend said today he didn’t have any proof of life or death.
“I’ve received some reporting since then that suggested he was not killed there by the Russians, but I don’t know. Since then, we’ve heard all kinds of reporting that he’s alive, that he’s dead. Quite honestly, don’t know,” he said. “I hope he’s deader than a doornail. If he’s not, as soon as we find out where he is, he will be.”
The general was later asked if it matters, considering leader Mullah Omar was dead for more than two years before the Taliban admitted so and the Afghan group didn’t miss a beat, quietly transitioning new leadership into place.
“It’d make me feel better if — to know that he was dead,” Townsend replied. “I don’t — I suppose it probably doesn’t really matter. If no one knows if he’s alive or 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.”
“So, if he is dead, that means someone’s running ISIS. And I think that they’re trying to keep it — his death quiet for their own morale,” he added. “I think it would be a blow to the enemy’s morale. It would probably uplift, I think, our partners. So in that way, I think it probably does matter. As far as the prosecution of the enemy’s plans, I’m not so sure that it does matter. I mean, they’re like any bureaucratic organization, to include our own forces. We have a succession of command. They have a succession of command. And I think they would implement it.”
“So, I just know it would make me feel a lot better if he were dead.”
Pressed further on his statements, Townsend emphasized that he doesn’t “have a clue” whether the ISIS leader is alive or dead.
“If you all keep asking me, I’ll try to come up with another artful way of saying it. But that’s the bottom line. Don’t have a clue,” the general said. “Don’t have a reason to believe he’s alive, don’t have a reason to believe he’s dead.”
During ISIS’ last stand in Mosul, the terror group last month destroyed the Al-Nuri mosque where al-Baghdadi proclaimed the formation of the caliphate on July 4, 2014.
In a November audio message, al-Baghdadi told ISIS fighters who were steadily losing ground since the October launch of the offensive on Mosul to hang in there as the coalition massing against them was part of their apocalyptic prophecy.
His half-hour-long recording, titled “This is What Allah and his Messenger Have Promised Us” and released by ISIS’ Al-Furqan media, did not come with any video.
Al-Baghdadi addressed jihadists in the provinces, including Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Indonesia, Philippines, Sinai, Bangladesh, West Africa and North Africa, as the “base of the caliphate,” and warned that “kuffar [disbelievers] will try to split you.” He told them to have patience and not be discouraged by the loss of leaders as they can be replaced.