Fate of Isis leader remains unclear after US airstrike in Iraq

Monitoring of Isis communications following attack near Mosul reveals nothing to suggest Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed

Officials in Baghdad and Washington remained unclear on Sunday about the fate of the Islamic State (Isis) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after a key aide was killed in a US air strike near Mosul.

A senior Iraqi official confirmed to the Guardian that the aide, Abdur Rahman al-Athaee, also known as Abu Sajar, was killed in the the attack late on Friday night, which hit a 10-car convoy south-west of the Isis stronghold.

Athaee was known to have been in almost constant contact with Baghdadi and officials deduced that his presence in the convoy likely meant that Baghdadi was with him.

However, monitoring of the group’s communications in the aftermath of the attack has revealed nothing to suggest that Baghdadi was killed. Officials have not ruled out that he may have been injured.

“We’re still looking at it very closely,” said an Iraqi intelligence official. “There’s nothing yet, and as time ticks on it may be less likely.”

Jihadi forums have remained mute since the strike took place. The death of Baghdadi would be difficult to keep quiet even among the tight discipline of Isis, which has proven difficult for Iraqi or international agencies to penetrate ever since it changed the modern face of the Middle East in June when it made rapid territorial gains in Iraq and seized Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

Iraqis officials claimed to have killed two senior Isis members on Saturday in a raid they carried out on the town of al-Qaim near the Syrian border. The raid took place on a house where senior leaders were meeting and is thought to have killed the overall leader of Anbar province, Adnan Latif al-Suweidi, and Isis’s leader in the Euphrates valley, Bashar al-Muhandi. Both held senior leadership positions in the organisation.

Targeted raids, carried out by the US and its Arab allies in the region, have proven effective in slowing the momentum of the group, according to Iraqi officials and one senior Isis member.However, they have failed to curtail its strategic aims.

The air strike near Mosul came hours after Barack Obama said he would double the number of US troops deployed to Iraq to reinforce the offensive against Isis. On Sunday, the US president said the troop surge will place the US on the front foot as it confronts the group.

In his first public comments since his surge announcement, Obama denied it represented a failure of early reliance on air strikes and said the deployment announced on Friday night “signals a new phase” in his campaign against Isis - also known as Isil.

“Rather than just try to halt to Isil’s momentum, we are now in a position to start going on some offensive,” he told Face The Nation on CBS.

“The air strikes have been very effective in degrading Isil’s abilities and slowing the advances they were making. Now we need some ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, to start pushing them back.”

The White House insists the new US troops will focus on training Iraqis to fight Isis and then coordinating air strikes, rather that being involved in what it calls an active combat role.

“What hasn’t changed is our troops are not engaged in combat, essentially what we are doing is we are taking four training centres with coalition members that allow us to bring in Iraqi troops, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting Isil, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics,” said Obama.

Iraqi forces have performed abysmally since Isis stormed into Mosul on 10 June. In the chaotic two days that followed, up to six divisions fled, surrendering their US-supplied advanced weapons. Since then, Shia militias have increasingly taken prominence in most frontlines across the country.

“We will provide them with close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offensive against Isil, but what we won’t be doing is having our own troops do the fighting,” he added.

But the president also refused to rule out further increases in military engagement in Iraq and Syria, which already include daily bombing raids on Isis in both countries.

“As the commander-in-chief, I am never going to say never,” he said when asked whether more troops would be sent. “But what the commanders who presented the plan to me say is that we may actually see fewer troops over time because now we are seeing coalition members starting to partner with us on the training and assist effort.”

Obama insists this time it will be different because attacks on Isis will only be led by Iraqis.

“What we learned from previous engagement in Iraq is that our military is always the best, we can always knock out any threat, but then when we leave that threat comes back,” he said.


Martin Chulov in Beirut and Dan Roberts in Washington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Isis weapons engineer killed in airstrike in Iraq, claims US military
Senior militant Abu Malik involved in weaponizing chemicals at Saddam Hussein’s former weapons complex, says US Central Command

Spencer Ackerman in Washington

31, Jan, 2015 @12:17 AM

Article image
'We lost our houses, our cars, our men': call to protect Mosul civilians
Human rights organisations call for Iraqi government to protect innocent people and investigate civilian deaths

Fazel Hawramy in Sulaymaniyah and Kareem Shaheen in Istanbul

11, Jul, 2017 @12:02 AM

Article image
US deploying more troops around Syria oil fields after killing of Isis leader
Trump has said he hopes to secure a US share of Syrian oil revenues, which is potentially a war crime

Julian Borger in Washington and Martin Chulov in Beirut

28, Oct, 2019 @7:43 PM

Article image
Kurdish forces claim to have cut off Isis supply line near Sinjar in Iraq
Troops say they expect to enter northern Iraqi town and clear it soon in an operation that aims to test US plans to defeat militants using Kurds as proxies

Martin Chulov, Fazel Hawramy in Dohuk, and Mark Tran

12, Nov, 2015 @9:53 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Baghdadi’s death: not enough to destroy Islamic State | Editorial
Editorial: The sociology of violence espoused by Isis will only be defeated by a political project that transcends the religious, nationalist and ethnic schisms in the region


28, Oct, 2019 @6:19 PM

Article image
'We will get him': the long hunt for Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
The world’s most wanted man remains at large, but as his ‘caliphate’ has crumbled so has the discipline of his leadership

Martin Chulov in Ba'aj, northern Iraq

15, Jan, 2018 @4:00 PM

Article image
Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi 'no longer in Mosul'
UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson tells MPs that intelligence sources believe Baghdadi ‘has vacated the scene’

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

03, Nov, 2016 @3:45 PM

Article image
Isis: Maliki hails Syrian air raids in Iraq as leaving both states 'winners'

Prime minister denies coordination with Assad as Iraqi forces raid Tikrit and Kurdish leader makes symbolic visit to Kirkuk

Martin Chulov in Baghdad and Fazel Hawramy in Erbil

27, Jun, 2014 @7:14 AM

Article image
Kurdish forces in big push against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
Peshmerga fighters tighten noose around Mosul as Iraqi forces target Falluja and Syrians advance north of Raqqa stronghold

Fazel Hawramy in east Mosul

29, May, 2016 @3:46 PM

Article image
UK commander in Iraq calls for patience over retaking Mosul from Isis
Maj-Gen Rupert Jones’s remarks contrast with Donald Trump’s apparent ideas for US strategy against Islamic State

Ewen MacAskill in Camp al-Asad, Iraq

28, Nov, 2016 @12:01 AM