Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be still alive and hiding in the border area between Syria and Iraq, a senior US general has said, contradicting a claim by Russia that it prpbably killed him in a raid in May.
As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the terror group in the city of Tal Afar on Thursday, US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told reporters that his forces were continuing the search for the elusive figurehead of the militant group, BBC reported.
“We’re looking for him every day. I don’t think he’s dead,” said Townsend, the commander of the counter-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria.
Although he admitted that he did not “have a clue” about Baghdadi’s precise whereabouts, the coalition believed he may have fled to the mid-Euphrates valley region between Syria and Iraq after IS forces were slowly driven out of their strongholds in Mosul, Raqqa and Tal Afar.
“The last stand of Islamic State will be in the middle-Euphrates river valley,” Townsend was quoted as saying by the Guardian newspaper.
“When we find him, I think we’ll just try to kill him first. It’s probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him.”
Despite a $25 million US bounty on his head, Iraq-born Baghdadi has avoided an intense effort to seek him out for six years or more, the report said.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a longtime monitor of the conflict, said in mid-June that it had heard from senior IS leaders in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province that Baghdadi was dead.
In June, Russia said there was a “high probability” that Baghdadi had been killed a month earlier in a Russian airstrike on Raqqa, the terror group’s de facto capital in northern Syria.
Baghdadi was believed to be in Mosul, Iraq, before a US-led coalition began an effort to reclaim the city in October 2016.
He has made only one public appearance in recent years — in a video delivering a sermon in Mosul on July 5, 2014, shortly after IS captured the city.
His last audio message was released on November 2, last year.