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Rumors Abound About Fate Of IS Leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

An undated video grab allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a mosque in Mosul.

An undated video grab allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a mosque in Mosul.

Over the past week, a number of rumors, reports, and claims have been circulating on mainstream and social media about the fate of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Britain's Guardian newspaper sparked the outpouring of speculation about Baghdadi when it said in an April 21 report that the IS leader had been seriously wounded in a March 18 air strike in western Iraq.

The Guardian's source for the claim was an anonymous individual in Iraq "with connections to the terror group." The source said that Baghdadi's injuries had been life-threatening but that he had made a recovery. However, Baghdadi had not been able to resume day-to-day control of IS, the source said.

The Guardian also quoted two other sources -- the first a Western diplomat and the second an Iraqi adviser, Hisham al-Hashimi -- as saying that U.S.-led forces had indeed carried out an air strike on March 18, in Nineveh near the Syrian border. The strike had targeted IS leaders in near the village of Umm al-Rous in the Al-Baaj district of Nineveh.

But the Pentagon poured cold water on the claims that the March 18 strike had either targeted or hit Baghdadi.

Army Colonel Steven Warren told The Daily Beast in the wake of The Guardian story that the Pentagon had "no reason to believe it was Baghdadi" who was targeted or hit in the March 18 strike.

Iraq's Interior Ministry spokesman said that the Guardian story was accurate, however, telling the BBC on April 21 that Baghdadi had been seriously wounded in the March 18 strike.

Since the publication of The Guardian story on April 21, al-Hashimi, the Iraqi government adviser who said that U.S.-led forces did strike in the al-Baaj district, has made additional claims about the state of the IS leadership.

Hashimi told Newsweek on April 22 that IS has temporarily replaced Baghdadi with a substitute, a former physics teacher in Mosul.

According to Hashimi, Baghdadi's stand-in is his deputy, Abu Alaa Afri, who is also known as Haji Iman.

Hashimi said that Afri had "begun to head up [IS] with the help of officials responsible for other portfolios."

Afri would become the new leader of IS should Baghdadi die, Hashimi added.

According to Newsweek, Afri is located in Mosul, in the al-Hadar region, where he has risen through IS ranks to become a prominent figure.

Afri had been a physics teacher in Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq. But Afri did not limit his studies to science, putting out "dozens of publications and religious studies of his own," according to Hashimi, who said that Afri had overseen Al-Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) Shari'a authorities in northern Iraq after its future leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to that group in 2004.

Afri went on to become a senior figure in AQI. Osama bin Laden had reportedly even wanted Afri to take over as leader of AQI in 2010, after two senior Al-Qaeda operatives -- Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a senior aide to former AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi -- were killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi air strike on the safe house they were staying in.

This week's claims that Baghdadi has been injured are not the first time the elusive IS leader has been reported to have been hit in an air strike.

In November, reports that Baghdadi was wounded, critically injured, or even killed in a U.S. air strike dominated headlines (the UK's Daily Mail even suggested Baghdadi might have faked his own death in order to "dupe the West.")

Eventually, Baghdadi issued an audio recording to prove that rumors of his demise had been premature.

It remains to be seen whether further proof emerges of Baghdadi's alleged serious injuries in the March 18 air strike, or if any fresh information is found to back up the claims that Afri is the IS's leader's substitute or eventual replacement.

What is certain, however, is that any new rumors or claims about Baghdadi's whereabouts or state of health will be discussed with great interest in the mainstream and social media.

While most IS-watchers are focusing their attention on Iraq and Syria, others have not ruled out spotting Baghdadi elsewhere in the world -- including in the traditionally cosmopolitan Ukrainian town of Odesa.

Perhaps the most unexpected headline relating to Baghdadi came on April 16, before The Guardian story about the IS leader's possible injuries broke, when Ukrainian news website Odessa Life announced that "Leader of IS Sought In Odesa."

The report related to an announcement on the website of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry in the Odesa District, which asked Ukrainians to pass on any information they might have about Baghdadi to a dedicated phone line.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena