When coalition forces became aware of a gathering of ISIS leaders near the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim on Saturday, they acted quickly. Intelligence identified a house where senior Islamic State leadership was meeting, possibly including ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Within minutes, that house and a 10 vehicle armored convoy was destroyed, according to witnesses. News quickly began circulating that ISIS’s spiritual and political leader had been seriously injured, or worse.
American commanders, however, could not confirm al-Baghadadi’s condition or even if he had been present in the targeted building.
“We cannot confirm if ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was among those present,” read a statement released on Saturday by Central Command. “This strike demonstrates the pressure we continue to place on the ISIL terrorist network and the group’s increasingly limited freedom to maneuver, communicate and command.”
According to al-Arabiya, al-Baghdadi’s injuries may be significant:
The leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was “critically wounded” when a U.S.-led air strike targeted the western Iraqi border town of al-Qaim, tribal sources told Al Arabiya News Channel on Saturday.
Karbuli said chaos ensued the air raid with ISIS members scrambling to transport their wounded to al-Qaim hospital which was overwhelmed with the number of patients.
The witnesses said ISIS fighters had cleared a hospital so that their wounded could be treated. ISIS fighters used loudspeakers to urge residents to donate blood, the witnesses said.
Even if the ISIS commander is only seriously wounded, removing him from the battlefield would be a victory for coalition forces:
Al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi militant believed to be in his early 40s, has a $10 million US bounty on his head. Since taking the reins of the group in 2010, he has transformed it from a local branch of al-Qa’ida into an independent transnational military force, positioning himself as perhaps the pre-eminent figure in the global jihadi community.
Despite coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS for several months, however, ISIS attacks in Iraq have not abated. On Saturday, a suicide truck bomber attacked an Iraqi police convoy, killing eight including a ranking commander. On Friday, a similar attack targeted Iraqi police Lt. Gen. Faisal Malik al-Zamel who was inspecting his forces north of Baghdad. The police commander was killed in that strike along with seven others.
ISIS, like al-Qaeda, will prove to be a multi-headed hydra, and decapitating its leadership is unlikely to seriously degrade the organization’s ability to mount attacks or take territory. It will, however, prove a demoralizing defeat for ISIS forces and a morale booster for America’s coalition partners on the ground. Here’s hoping al-Baghadadi’s condition is soon confirmed, and the prognosis is not good.
Update: American officials say they have no intelligence that indicates Baghdadi was injured, much less killed, in coalition airstrikes this weekend.
This post has been updated since its original publication.