By Helene Cooper
June 23, 2017
On the same day the Pentagon announced it had killed yet another Islamic State leader that few Americans have heard of, Fawaz Muhammad Jubayr Al-Rawi, American officials also said they do not know if the Islamic State’s most well-known name, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still alive.
Officials cautioned that they have no evidence that Mr. Baghdadi is dead. But the duelling narratives illustrate the plodding nature of the Defence Department’s fight against the militant Sunni Islamic extremist group, which is, after almost three years of airstrikes, on the back foot in both Iraq and Syria.
Every couple of weeks, the United States Central Command, which oversees combat operations in the Middle East, announces the death of an Islamic State leader who has been killed in airstrikes. On Tuesday, it was Turki al-Bin’ali, whom the American-led coalition called the “self-proclaimed grand mufti or chief cleric” of the Islamic State, killed in a May 31 airstrike in Mayadin, Syria. Two weeks before that, it was Samir Idris, whom the Defense Department said was a “key” Islamic State financier of attacks around the world, also killed near Mayadin.
On Friday, it was Mr. Rawi, a Syrian labelled by the Pentagon “an experienced terrorist financial facilitator,” who moved millions of dollars for the Islamic State’s attack and logistics network.
Mr. Rawi owned a currency exchange that he used, along with a network of global financial contacts, “to move money into and out of ISIS-controlled territory and across borders,” a Defence Department statement said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. The Treasury Department had imposed sanctions on Mr. Rawi and his company in December.
As for Mr. Baghdadi, the Defence Department has no concrete evidence of whether he is still alive, Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the American-led coalition that is fighting the Islamic State, told reporters on Friday from Baghdad.
“That said, we don’t have any concrete evidence on whether or not he’s dead, either,” Colonel Dillon said of Mr. Baghdadi, who has been the subject of a three-year manhunt.
Since the American-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State began in August 2014, reports of Mr. Baghdadi’s death have repeatedly surfaced. None have turned out to be true.
The latest foray into figuring out whether the Islamic State leader is dead or alive began June 16, when Russia’s military — which is also bombing the Islamic State in Syria — said it was looking into whether one of its airstrikes in the Syrian desert had killed Mr. Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State. In a statement, the Defence Ministry said the Russian Air Force had struck a meeting of Islamic State leaders on May 28 outside Raqqa, Syria, the group’s de facto capital, possibly killing Mr. Baghdadi.
This week, Russia upgraded its assessment, as the deputy foreign minister, Oleg V. Syromolotov, said that Moscow was increasingly certain that Russian warplanes had killed Mr. Baghdadi three weeks ago.
Throughout it all, American defence officials have maintained that they have no proof that the Islamic State leader is dead. They said they were reviewing reports from May 28 and subsequent days for clues, but pointed out that Mr. Baghdadi has not been heard from publicly since November, when the Islamic State released a blistering audio recording in which he urged forces to remain firm in the face of the American-backed Iraqi offensive in Mosul. So the fact that he has not popped up publicly since May 28 does not necessarily mean he has been killed.
But on Friday, Colonel Dillon seemed to inch — ever so slightly — in the direction that Mr. Baghdadi may be dead. “We certainly know that if he is still alive, we expect that he is not being able to influence what is currently happening in Raqqa or Mosul or over all,” he told a Pentagon briefing, “as they continue to lose their physical caliphate.”