An airstrike in the ISIS stronghold of Mosul killed at least two members of the group, including an aide to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, according to the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
Reports that Baghdadi himself had been killed by a U.S. airstrike circulated in Turkish and Kurdish media Wednesday and were repeated to The Daily Beast by multiple Iraqi sources. But a Pentagon official denied that the ISIS leader was dead. "There is no validity to the rumor that we've killed Baghdadi," a senior defense official told The Daily Beast.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry announcement, first reported by al Arabayia, did not specify whether the airstrike was carried out by American or Iraqi forces, but NBC News reports that a senior security official confirmed it was a U.S. airstrike. The article does not clarify whether the security official is American or Iraqi but quotes them as saying that three ISIS leaders were killed, including Baghdadi’s aide Abu Hajar Al-Sufi, an explosives specialist and commander in the town of Tal Afar.
There have been no public statements yet from U.S. officials on the reported airstrikes.
While the U.S. air war in Iraq has been steadily expanding since it began in early August, Thursday’s reports provide the first public indication that ISIS’s senior leadership is being directly targeted.
The rumors of Baghdadi’s death that spread through northern Iraq yesterday may have been triggered by uncertainty over who died in the airstrikes that reportedly killed his aide. It’s also possible that claim’s of Baghdadi’s death could have come from ISIS itself as part of a deception campaign to cover the leader’s tracks and obscure his true status and whereabouts.
Multiple sources, including Kurdish intelligence officials and former Iraqi army officers, told The Daily Beast Wednesday that Baghdadi had died somewhere in Syria after being wounded in a recent airstrike and fleeing Iraq to seek medical treatment.
This was not the first time that rumors of Baghdadi’s death have surfaced. Without an independent press to verify new information, unverified claims can be spread quickly through Iraq as speculation outpacing facts and gets taken for the truth.
But the new reports that ISIS leaders were killed by airstrikes in Mosul, coming only a day after a flurry of claims about Baghdadi’s death in Syria, suggests the group’s leadership is increasingly vulnerable and that Baghdadi may be on the run and seeking sanctuary in Syria where President Obama has not yet authorized military intervention.
With additional reporting by Ford Sypher and Eli Lake.