Earlier today the world’s newslines lit up with claims from Russia that they may have killed Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the reviled leader of Islamic State.
If the reports are true, the death would be a serious blow to Isis morale. However the claims must be treated with a significant degree of caution - both because the news is fiendishly hard to prove and because there's no guarantee this would damage Isis.
TRAC has no way of verifying the Russians’ claims, without the body of the leader being presented. No-one does. But one can look at similar cases in the recent past, and these tell us that Isis has never hesitated to declare a leader dead, no matter how senior. By making these declarations, the jihadists can martyr the leaders with posters and fan-generated photo montages.
In some cases, Isis declared a senior leader dead, even before the airstrike was announced a success. There is no reason to believe that Baghdadi will be any different to any of those previous cases.
Truth is, it’s highly unlikely that Isis would risk Baghdadi attending a meeting of senior commanders. Being the constant target of air strikes, Isis’s planners know as well as anyone just how dangerous these meetings can be.
Additionally, if the Russians had in fact been certain that they had killed any senior leader, let alone Baghdadi, why wait almost a full three weeks to tell the rest of the world? This is breaking news and it was held back for 20 straight days.Why wait so long to release the claim? This inexplicable delay only throws further doubt on the reports of Baghdadi’s demise.
Even if the report is true, there is the distinct possibility that Baghdadi's death could cause the reverse of the intended effect - galvanizing people who are sitting on the fence of true support. Isis has always maintained that it is on a defensive jihad, which, to sympathisers, provides justification for attacking anywhere at any time. Killing Baghdadi might just throw more goodwill Isis’s way.
The big winner in all this is Russia – and its leader Vladimir Putin. If Baghdadi does not release a proof of life audio/video/statement, the Russians can use the doubt of his being alive as political clout. If Baghdadi does release a statement/audio/video, then the Russians can claim that they flushed him out. Either way, the Russians can give the appearance that they occupy the moral high ground and, by implication, their alliance with Assad and Iran. The Russian statement reminds the world that they are fighting Isis too, not merely supporting despots of the Middle East.
The Russian angle is clear. But everything else about this story is vague and it will may take a while yet for the real truth to emerge.
Veryan Khan is the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher for TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), one of the world's largest electronic compendiums for data and analysis of terrorist groups, activities, trends and up to date developments. For complete information see www.trackingterrorism.org and follow the group on Twitter @TRACterrorism