On Wednesday, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said ISIS’s No. 2 leader, Alaa al-Afri, had been killed in an airstrike targeting a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. The ministry released a video of what it called the Iraqi strike that killed al-Afri. The problem: The video was actually May 4 video of a coalition strike in Mosul, 40 miles away.
And given that Al-Afri spoke at a mosque in Mosul Friday, it is impossible that the released video could have been of the No. 2 commander’s death.
It’s not the first time Iraq has made dubious claims about offing ISIS chiefs. The question is: why do they keep doing it?
The Iraqi government may want to give its troops any edge it can as they take on ISIS, some analysts suggested to The Daily Beast. One recent technique is to claim greater success against terror leaders than the evidence supports.
It is possible that al-Afri was killed between Friday and Wednesday when Iraqi officials made the claim. But no one can confirm it. And the fact they were so aggressive to make th claim suggests they were eager to sell their successes, defense officials pondered.
“We are aware of media reports that the second-in-command of ISIL has been killed in a Coalition air strike in Tal Afar and have no information to corroborate these claims,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement. “However, we can confirm that Coalition aircraft did not strike a mosque as some of the press reporting has alleged.”
Conflicting reports by the U.S. and Iraqi governments, as well as international press reports citing sources from within the jihadist group itself, have created a confused and contradictory picture about the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, even as U.S. warplanes continue to fly dozens of airstrikes per day against the terror group.
Since April there have been increased reports that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was severely injured in a coalition air strike. One Iraqi defense official reported that al-Baghdadi had been injured. And several defectors told The Daily Beast al-Baghdadi had been transferred from Iraq to the Syrian city of Raqqa, where he was receiving medical treatment. The U.S. military has said it has no evidence al-Baghdadi was injured in a coalition air strike or so incapacitated that it is no longer leading the group.
And while al-Baghdadi has been quiet of late, it was hard to read much into that silence. He has only released a handful of audio messages in the past four years so a recent pause wouldn’t be too far out of the ordinary.
Nevertheless, al-Afri’s prominence publicly rose as the potential successor or de facto operational leader in recent weeks. The once-anonymous leader has been suggested as a possible successor.
The fact that al-Afri delivered a speech during Friday prayers at the same Mosul mosque where Baghdadi last appeared publicly only raised speculation.
Regardless, days later, the Iraqi Defense Ministry pronounced al-Afri dead, which if true, would be a major blow to what some hope is a beleaguered terror group.
On Wednesday, Ministry spokesman Brig-Gen Tahsin Ibrahim told the BBC al Afri had been “killed in an Iraq strike.” According to the BBC report, Ibrahim said al-Afri “was killed alongside dozens of militants who he had been meeting at the al-Shuhada (Martyrs) mosque in the village of al-Iyadhiya, near Tal Afar, where he was reportedly a well-known preacher.”
Along with the announcement the ministry published the May 4 video but did not say when the strike occurred or which country conducted the strike.
Skeptical U.S. officials privately suspect there may be ulterior motives to the announcement. Iraqi officials may have hoped that news that the leadership had been destroyed would bolster the morale of its forces, one U.S. official explained.
It’s a boost the Iraqi could use. In recent weeks, the Iraqi military had hoped to build on the momentum from ISIS’s loss of the central city of Tikrit. Instead, it has instead sustained losses. The Iraqi forces have lost much of the central city of Baiji as well as control of the refinery. In addition, the western city of Ramadi remains “heavily contested,” defense officials said.
With that backdrop, the U.S. official called it “quite a coincidence” that al-Afri could have been killed just as he was emerging as a public figure.
That lack of conclusive evidence on the status of two men who together the U.S. has issued $17 million reward for their release or capture is just the latest example of the opaque war being waged both by and against ISIS.
While jihadist groups generally post information about the death of their leaders, and celebrate them as martyrs, other information is carefully protected.
ISIS “is a clandestine organization. It’s very good at counterintelligence and personal security because many were former Baathists so there is a gap in what we can know publicly,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs who studies jihadi movements. “If there were those issues like Baghdadi being injured or al-Afri taking over leadership roles, I doubt they would talk about publicly.”
Meanwhile, with no U.S. ground troops in Iraq or Syria to assess the damage of the more than 3,700 strikes conducted since April, there is no definitive way to determine what was struck, officials concede.
The result is that claims like al-Afri was killed are easily made but hard to confirm. So is he dead? It very possibly could be true, given the lack of definitive information on much of what is happening on the ground. But there is no conclusive evidence from the U.S. military, the jihadists themselves or the Iraqi government.
“I think that we should be patient until we know more information,” Zelin said.