A senior US general has said that the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still alive but the coalition does not “have a clue” about where he is.
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told a press conference that he is likely hiding in the border area between Syria and Iraq and that his troops will continue to search for Baghdadi and take down the militant group.
His announcement comes as the Iraqi prime minister declared victory over IS in the city of Tal Afar on Thursday.
“We’re looking for him every day. I don’t think he’s dead,” said Townsend, the commander of the counter-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria.
In the press conference, he admitted that the coalition did not “have a clue” about Baghdadi’s whereabouts, but believed he could be hiding in the mid-Euphrates valley region between Syria and Iraq after IS militants were driven out of their strongholds in Mosul, Raqqa and Tal Afar.
“The last stand of ISIS will be in the middle-Euphrates river valley,” Townsend said.
“When we find him, I think we’ll just try to kill him first. It’s probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him.”
Baghdadi, who has a $25m bounty on his head, has been reported dead a number of times in the last year.
Last June, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said senior IS leaders in Syria’s Deir Ezzor had said that Baghdadi was dead.
And in mid-June, the Russian army said that it was seeking to verify whether it had killed him in a May air strike in Syria.
“I’ve seen no convincing evidence, intelligence, or open-source or other rumor or otherwise that he’s dead… There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s still alive,” said Townsend.
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had declared victory in Tal Afar despite continued fighting in the small town of al-Ayadiya.
Tal Afar became the next target for the Iraqi government in its fight against IS after it retook Mosul.
This includes Hawija, a city between Mosul and Baghdad that Iraqi officials have said will be the coalition’s next target.
The Iraqi army dropped millions of leaflets over Hawija on Thursday, warning residents it was preparing an offensive to recapture the city from IS, the military said in a statement.
The leaflets urged residents to stay away from militants’ headquarters, to drop weapons and turn themselves in to avoid being killed.
Divisions from the Iraqi army and federal police, backed by units from Shia paramilitaries, retook al-Ayadiya on Thursday, military officers told Reuters, after several days of unexpectedly fierce fighting.
Pockets of resistance remained and Iraqi forces were still working to clear the remaining militants from the town.
“We have to make sure that no more terrorists remain hiding inside the town’s houses,” Lieutenant Colonel Salah Kareem told Reuters.