The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Wounded, dead or missed entirely by U.S. airstrikes?

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq in July. (AP Photo/Militant video)

No one knows exactly where he came from. No one knows why he was chosen to lead the Islamic State. And now, in the past 24 hours, reports have arrived saying Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is “believed dead,” or merely wounded, or “critically wounded,” or unscathed — or possibly not even at the scene of the attack.

Following U.S. airstrikes targeting Islamic State commanders attending a clandestine meeting over the weekend, few reports agree on the facts. Meanwhile, American commanders can’t or won’t say whether he was even there, let alone hurt.

The drama and ensuing confusion is fitting for Baghdadi, a shadowy figure whose myth may only be enhanced by the mystery surrounding his purported demise.

The saga deepened on Sunday when the Iraqi defense minister said on Facebook that Baghdadi’s deputy was killed and that the self-described caliph was injured in the attack. Then Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, said to be the Islamic State’s spokesman, dispatched his own update.

“Perhaps you suspected that the Caliphate ended with martyrdom of the Caliph,” the Jerusalem Post quoted him as saying. “I assure the [Islamic] nation that the Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is well thank God, and I wish him a speedy recovery.” The implication was that Baghdadi was at least injured.

If so, he would have escaped a fate that claimed other prominent jihadist leaders. The assassinations began in 2006. That year, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of an earlier iteration of the Islamic State, was killed when U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house in which he met with other insurgency figures. Four years later, an Iraqi-American operation unleashed a barrage on a building in Tikrit, Iraq, killing the group’s top two leaders and ushering in the tenure of an unknown figure named Baghdadi.

Not surprisingly, those killings made Baghdadi risk-averse and even more inclined than other militant leaders to a life inhabited in the shadows. But while the leader’s aversion to the public eye has protected Baghdadi, it has also allowed facts to melt into Islamic State propaganda, forging an identity that has become one of the most potent recruiting devices at the Islamic State’s disposal.

The pitch: Baghdadi is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, holds a doctorate in Islamic studies and envisions a Sunni-dominated caliphate that spans continents. It’s a carefully crafted story that separates the Islamic State from nearly every other Islamic militant movement — evidenced when fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate battling in Syria, wanted to defect to the Islamic State. All they had to do, reported the New York Times, was make a few phone calls, pledge allegiance to Baghdadi and their new life would begin.

The mystique of Baghdadi, experts suggest, would make him all the more difficult to replace and his loss all the more significant.

“The wounding and potential loss of Baghdadi may be of more significance for his followers” than adherents of other jihadist groups, wrote Theodore Karasik, senior adviser to the company, Risk Insurance Management. “Baghdadi, as ‘Caliph Ibrahim,’ to maintain his religious foundation, needs to be of a whole body. If he loses a limb in his injuries, his credibility suffers. If he dies, the death would toss the entire concept of the legitimacy of the ‘Caliphate’ on its head.”

Using another name for the Islamic State, Karasik added: “ISIS discourse will likely need to be revised.”

So if Baghdadi survived the American bombardment, he may retreat further into darkness. That’s where he’s most comfortable operating, reported the Soufan Group. “He is intensely careful about his security,” it said. “When commanders below the leadership level were called to meet him, it is said that they would be told he was present in the group but without his identity being specified.” Other reports said he wears masks when meeting prisoners to obscure his identity, earning the nickname the “invisible sheik.”

When Baghdadi delivered a sermon from a mosque in Mosul on July 4, 2014, it marked the first time many people had gotten a good look at him. Before that appearance, there had been only two confirmed pictures of him. And such “obscurity,” a Soufan report said, “may have provided [him] an advantage.”

Indeed, tracking his movements has been difficult in the black hole of Syria, where U.S. officials fumble around without a stable of contacts and intelligence services available in Iraq, according to a Foreign Policy report. “The same thing is needed to hunt down Baghdadi,” Thomas Sanderson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the magazine. “When you kill the leader, it demonstrates that anyone is vulnerable.”

Making the challenge more difficult: The Islamic State has altered its tactics. U.S. airstrikes have forced it hide its fighters among local communities and cities, Foreign Policy said, and stop moving its soldiers in large convoys. “They have gone to ground inside cities, and this makes decapitation strikes very difficult,” David E. Johnson, a Rand military expert, said. “You can’t kill them if you can’t find them.”

And few are more difficult to find than Baghdadi.