The leader of the world's most dangerous terrorist group has reportedly been seriously wounded in an airstrike in western Iraq, Martin Chulov at The Guardian reports.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy figurehead of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), "suffered serious injuries during an attack by the US-led coalition in March," according to Chulov's sources.
Two officials, one Western and one Iraqi, confirmed to The Guardian that the airstrike targeted multiple cars in the town of Baaj in northwestern Iraq on March 18.
The Pentagon has denied the report. Defense officials told The Daily Beast that the air strike was not aimed at a high-value target and that they "have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi." They said there was no evidence then or since then that Baghdadi was killed.
Chulov reports that officials didn't know that Baghdadi was in one of the cars targeted in the airstrike. He was reportedly staying in that area of Iraq because he "knew from the war that the Americans did not have much cover there," a source who is aware of Baghdadi's movements told The Guardian.
Baghdadi is reportedly recovering slowly but has not resumed day-to-day control of ISIS. Since rising to power as the leader of ISIS, he has operated mostly in the shadows, appearing infrequently on video.
ISIS was reportedly masterminded by a former Iraq colonel in Saddam Hussein's intelligence services, and the Sunni militant group has a highly structured organization. Baghdadi serves as the religious face of the franchise that evolved from Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later 'caliph,' the official leader of the Islamic State," Der Spiegel reported. "They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face."
After Baghdadi was wounded, ISIS leaders reportedly began scrambling to figure out a succession plan because they thought he was going to die, according to The Guardian. Previous reports about Baghdadi's death or severe injury have proved false.
Given the dominance of Saddam-era intel officials, ISIS is unlikely to be fatally crippled if Baghdadi is unable to lead.
"While Baghdadi invokes authority as a religious leader, the constant threat from the skies has led to some of its command and strategic decisions being made by other member of the leadership," Chulov writes. "Since Baghdadi's wounding, Isis's military and Shura councils have become increasingly prominent in decision-making, the source close to the organization revealed."
Chulov previously reported on how Baghdadi and others held at Camp Bucca, a US-run prison in southern Iraq, formed the basis of ISIS and used the camp as a planning ground for terrorism.
Baghdadi was detained by US forces in Fallujah in 2004 during the insurgency against US forces in Iraq and eventually taken to Camp Bucca, according to The Guardian.
Americans reportedly determined he was no longer a threat and authorized his release that same year. Baghdadi then rose to power in Iraq, and others from American prison camps in the country went on to join ISIS.
Baghdadi declared himself the "caliph" of the Islamic State in July, and the terror group rampaged across northern Iraq from neighboring Syria last summer.
The rise and resilience of the group is partly attributed to widespread Sunni discontent in Iran and Syria, which stemmed from the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the subsequent US backing of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, and the brutal war machine of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad being used against a largely Sunni civilian population.
A US-led coalition has been bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria since August, and Chulov notes the campaign has been effective at targeting ISIS leadership.
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