Dead or alive? ISIS leader conspiracy theories swirl

Is he alive? Is he dead? There are no bones, so self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's followers are turning to conspiracy theories instead.

It should have been a defining moment in the war on terror.

The spiritual leader of the Islamic State jihadist movement was dead. He'd detonated a suicide vest instead of submitting to capture by US special forces troops.

US President Donald Trump was elated.

In a graphic, rambling public address, Trump declared the Baghdadi had died "crying, whimpering and screaming". But, strangely, his generals have since refused to confirm this was the actual story of the caliph's demise.

It's not gone down well in an already cynical Middle East.

Baghdadi has been killed before. Other breathless announcements that targeted strikes had hit him have been made. Several times over.

So little wonder that in the remote desert towns of Iraq and Syria where Islamic State once ruled, doubt reigns.

That doubt, however, is dangerous.

International think-tanks fear this provides Islamic State and other opponents of Western democracy with explosive ammunition to undermine trust. And trust is the foundation stone of our society.


"He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down," a triumphant Trump declared in his address to the nation.

"He ignited his vest, killing himself and his three children. His body was mutilated by the blasts. The tunnel had caved on him.

"The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him".

Trump gave an action-packed narrative of helicopters skimming over the desert, of troops "blowing a hole through the wall" of Baghdadi's compound, of the caliph being relentlessly hunted down …

Trump boasted he had seen events unfold "as though you were watching a movie".

But, since Trump's speech, some of this colourful account has been walked-back.

And this has only further fed cynicism among Baghdadi's supporters.

Head of US Central Command General Frank McKenzie said two children had been with Baghdadi when he crawled into a hole and blew himself up: "I'm not able to confirm anything else about his last seconds. I'm just not able to confirm that one way or another."


"I'm happy, but I'm not sure about the news," Mosul resident Marwa Khaled told NPR News about reports of Baghdadi's death.

"We didn't see a body. We didn't see anything."

It's a sentiment echoed among captured Islamic State fighters and followers held in detention centres across Syria.

Photos of wrecked buildings. Black-and-white drone footage of a raid underway. President Trump's gory account of the events that unfolded on the weekend raid.

Baghdadi was Trump's trophy.

"This is the biggest there is," he said.

"This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country."

The evidence of the raid is stark. But is it enough?

"We are all soldiers of Baghdadi … but the jihad hasn't stopped," a recording made by a humanitarian worker talking to detained jihadists says.

"And there's nothing to prove he died. We heard in the news. It's been a rumour numerous times. As warriors, we believe that even if Baghdadi dies, the caliphate will not end. … We aren't just here for one person."

Another woman simply states: "Nobody believes Trump's tales".


Confounding the scenario is the hasty disposal of Baghdadi's body.

Under international conventions, the US had to bury the caliph under his own funerary traditions. And that meant everything had to be completed within 24 hours.

Remains were pulled from the explosive-blasted tunnel. They were DNA tested. Bodycam footage from the US soldiers was assessed.

In no time, formal identification of Baghdadi' was complete.

Then special procedures for the death of such a prominent figure were put into effect.

US forces gathered up Baghdadi's possessions. They demolished the compound in which he had been hiding to prevent it from becoming a shrine. His remains were buried at sea so there could be no relics to be revered as those of a martyr.

There was no doubt in the White House or Pentagon that they had got their man.

General McKenzie detailed that confidence Thursday.

"The DNA analysis resulted in a direct match to a 2004 DNA sample collected at an Iraq detention centre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," a Central Command statement reads.

"The rapid analysis showed a direct match between the samples and produced a level of certainty that the remains belonged to Baghdadi of 1 in 104 septillion."

But to Baghdadi's believers, these are mere words from a nation that has long since lost all credibility. And Trump himself has acknowledged the cynicism.

He says he is now considering releasing footage of the raid "so that (Baghdadi's) followers and all of these young kids that want to leave various countries, including the United States, they should see how he died. He didn't die a hero. He died a coward."

This is yet to happen.


Moscow has seized upon the confusion, exploiting as a means of further damaging trust in Western institutions and governments.

Head of Center of the Near and Middle East Center at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies Vladimir Fitin told Russian media that the death of Baghdadi was meaningless.

"The Americans have buried Baghdadi more than once. It is yet to be proved what really happened," he said.

Kremlin officials have also challenged the credibility of US descriptions of al-Baghdadi's death. They've even expressed doubt the special forces raid took place.

Baghdadi had been hiding out in territory supposedly under the responsibility of joint Russian-Syrian forces.

Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the US had provided no valid proof, and that what information it had provided was contradictory.

"We know nothing about any assistance regarding the flight of US aircraft in the airspace of the Idlib de-escalation zone in the course of this operation," he said.

Russian forces operating in Syria also reported being unaware of any action: "On Saturday and in recent days no airstrikes were made on the Idlib de-escalation zone by US aircraft or the so-called 'international coalition' were recorded," he said.

And, if Baghdadi had been there, Konashenkov argued Russian troops would have already killed him.

"This organization has always unhesitatingly killed IS fighters on the spot as key rivals for power in Syria," Konashenkov asserted.

"Keeping this in mind, the US or other participants in the operation should at least provide direct evidence that the former Islamic State leader had been safely staying in territory controlled by the 'Syrian al-Qaida'."


Baghdadi the martyr. Baghdadi lives. Baghdadi never actually existed.

The conspiracy tales are already swarming across the Middle East and into the digital domain.

And strategic think tanks are increasingly alarmed at such manipulation of truth on an international scale.

It's no longer the laughable propaganda of World War II's Lord Haw-Haw or Tokyo Rose.

It's a sophisticated campaign designed to destroy trust.

Campaigners know that once the seed of a doubt has been implanted in someone's mind, it tends to sprout and proliferate.

"Influence operations in the digital age are not merely propaganda with new tools," says a Lowy Institute report in their Interpreter publication.

"They represent an evolved form of manipulation that presents actors with endless possibilities."

The difference, the authors argue, is that modern observers get to watch as an event unfolds on digital and social media. They feel as though they are participants. They do not have a sense of detached observation.

"They experience the narrative as it is developing; it becomes part of their lived experience. Posting, commenting, tagging, and sharing - they are no longer at arm's length from the subject matter."

This makes them particularly vulnerable to manipulation.

"Research into digital-age influence operations is revealing that these operations are rarely about changing what people believe. They are instead about confirming what people already believe … it involves flooding people with confirmation bias for a given belief, and starving them of opportunities to question and doubt other beliefs."

In this way, Islamic State and Russian influence operators have already begun exploiting the confusion surrounding Baghdadi's death. They're seeking out those who harbour a seed of doubt about Trump's tales, and are using it as a wedge to undermine trust and democratic processes further.

And, in the case of the caliph, they've found fertile ground.

"First Bush came and said he killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then Obama came and he said he killed bin Laden, now this one comes saying he killed Baghdadi. Every president kills one," a Mosul pet store owner told NPR.

An Islamic State fighter in Afghanistan told Reuters that he also believed Baghdadi's death was faked: "If the US really killed him, they should show the evidence, show the body. But let's say he was killed, it wouldn't matter. Our struggle is not for Baghdadi; our struggle against the infidels is for Allah."

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