TEHRAN (Press Shia) – Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS) Chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and hiding in Syria, despite Russian reports of his death, Iraqi and Kurdish counter-terrorism officials have said.
"Baghdadi is definitely alive. He is not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent he is alive," Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official said in an interview on Monday.
Mr. Talabany claimed the Daesh chief was located somewhere south of Raqqa, the capital of the group's so-called caliphate, The Telegraph reported.
"Don't forget his roots go back to al-Qaeda days in Iraq. He has years of experience in hiding and getting away from the security services," he told Reuters. "He knows what he is doing."
Russia had claimed it killed the elusive leader, who has not been seen in public since declaring ISIL’s so-called caliphate from the Iraqi city of Mosul in July 2014, in an airstrike on a meeting of senior ISIL commanders near Raqqa on May 28.
The UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) last week said they had “unconfirmed information” Baghdadi had been killed in Syria.
However, Western and Iraqi officials could not confirm either of the claims.
"Our approach is we assume he's alive until it's proven otherwise, and right now I can't prove it otherwise," Jim Mattis, US defense Secretary, said last week. "We'll go after him until he's gone.”
Abu Ali Basri, the director general of the Iraq’s intelligence and counter-terrorism office in the ministry of interior, agreed Baghdadi was still alive and in Syria.
“We have more of a vested interest than others, than international and Arab intelligence services, to pursue and hunt down, to monitor all the movements of the leader of and his followers,” Mr. Basri said, addressing the Russian claims.
“The monitoring cells deny news of his death and other reports regarding his health recently published.”
Baghdadi is not thought to have been in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has been heavily targeted by the US-led coalition, for some time and is believed to have been moving between ISIL territories along the Syria-Iraq border.
The Telegraph was told by a resident of the village of Jdaidet al-Okaibat on the outskirts of the ISIL-controlled eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor that he appeared on June 24 for Eid al-Fitr prayers, which mark the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
He claimed a group of around 200 people took part in the prayers, led by Baghdadi, who looked “fit and well”.
Both officials warned that despite ISIL’s losses in its major strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, the threat had not disappeared.
“The group has sent sleeper cells from Syria to spread around the world to carry out attacks and spread chaos,” Mr. Basri said.
Mr. Talabany said ISIL was shifting tactics despite low morale and it would take three or four years to eliminate the group.
After defeat, the jihadists would wage an insurgency and resemble al-Qaeda on "steroids", he said.