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ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi May Have Been Killed, Russia Says

Russia said around 30 ISIS field commanders and 300 militants were killed in the attack by Su-35 and Su-34 fighter jets in Raqqa, Syria.
Image: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the center of Mosul
A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the center of Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014.Reuters TV

MOSCOW — Russia believes one of its airstrikes may have killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its defense ministry announced Friday.

The militant commander's death has been rumored many times before. Both the Pentagon and officials with the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS said they was unable to confirm the report.

Russia's defense ministry said on Facebook that it was checking information related to the attack, which it said targeted a meeting of senior ISIS figures near the group's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa on May 28.

It said around 30 field commanders and 300 militants were killed by Su-35 and Su-34 fighter jets. Baghdadi may have been at the meeting, the defense ministry added.

"According to the information that is being checked via various channels ... the leader of ISIS was at the conference and was liquidated by the strike," it said in a statement posted on Facebook.

In televised remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he didn't have a "100 percent confirmation" of the Baghdadi's death.

The Russian military said it had informed the U.S. about the strike "that may have killed the ISIS leader."

Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve ,tweeted that the coalition could not confirm Baghdadi's death.

If confirmed, Baghdadi's death would represent a major success for the Russian military, which has been supporting the Syrian regime in the country’s civil war since 2015.

The ISIS leader is one of America’s most wanted terrorists, with the State Department offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his location, arrest, or conviction. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al Qaeda leader, is the only other person with a similar bounty.

Baghdadi is believed to have been born in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971. He spent three years detained in Camp Bucca, the U.S. prison camp in Iraq, before he was released in 2009.

The following year he emerged as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, an offshoot that would morph into ISIS.

Baghdadi transformed the militants into a well-oiled and organized fighting force.

The group changed its name in April 2013 and this move signaled the group's broader ambitions: establishing a caliphate straddling the border of Iraq and Syria which strictly enforces Shariah law.

In a June 2013 audio statement, Baghdadi — who claims to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad — vowed to erase the "Western imposed border with Syria" and called on his followers to "tear apart" the governments in both countries and their regional backers.

However, ISIS has suffered heavy defeats on the battlefield since this heyday.

Multi-pronged assaults by U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria and the Russian-backed Syrian army saw the group lose a huge amount of its territory.

Its two stronghold cities — Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria — are now being squeezed by the patchwork coalitions fighting against them.

Iraqi forces have taken back much of Mosul, announcing Thursday they were about to encircle its Old City.

Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes are also besieging Raqqa, which has acted as ISIS de facto capital city.

Mansur Mirovalev reported from Moscow. Alexander Smith reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.