On Friday, June 16, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed, that on May 28 a Russian airstrike «in a southern suburb of Raqqa» killed several top ISIS commanders, possibly including the leader of the terror group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The MoD also presented drone images which they claimed showed the airstrike’s aftermath:
— Минобороны России (@mod_russia) June 16, 2017
Was it indeed a Russian airstrike, and was al-Baghdadi really killed? A closer look into the circumstances of the alleged airstrike poses a few questions which are presented in this post.
Alleged airstrike location
The Conflict Intelligence Team geolocated the images presented by the Russian MoD (map link):
It should be noted that the place in the MoD’s images is not in a "southern suburb of Raqqa" as their own release claims, but just one kilometer west of the Old City, in a dense residential area.
Who performed the attack?
The website of Liveuamap project which tracks developments in Ukraine and Syria has only one mark indicating airstrikes or shelling dated May 28 in the area we geolocated. However, it states these were performed by the international anti-ISIS coalition or Kurdish YPG militias storming Raqqa.
We traced the origin of this message to "Raqqa is being slaughtered silently" activist group monitoring war crimes by ISIS and its enemies against the people of Raqqa and the surrounding area. In the early hours of May 29, the group posted photos on their Facebook and Twitter profiles showing the destruction caused by Coalition airstrikes and Kurdish artillery shelling (the latter likely means 155-mm howitzers of the United States Marine Corps supporting the YPG/Syrian Democratic Forces, which, to the knowledge of our team, do not have their own field artillery):
#الرقة_تذبح_بصمت #Syria #ISIS #YPG #RAQQA صور توضح حجم الدمار الكبير الذي حل في مدينة الرقة جراء غارات و القصف المدفعي الذي تعرضت له المدينةيوم امسالصور من "حي المرور — شارع النور — شارع القوتلي"
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) May 29, 2017
We have geolocated some of the photos published by the activists. It turned out they show the same place that was marked in the MoD imagery.
The presence of rubble in the photos and its absence in the MoD imagery is likely explained by the fact that the rubble was cleared during the time passed between the moments captured by the activists’ photographs and the MoD’s images. We have seen a similar situation when we looked into airstrikes on schools in Idlib governorate.
The Raqqa activists also claimed on May 29 that during the past 24 hours over 35 people had been killed in Raqqa. However, their infogrraphic published in early June claims only 4 people had been killed by Russian airstrikes in the whole month of May.
The Coalition & SDF targeted #Raqqa city by more than 30 airstrikes & 80 artillery shells & rockets, last 24 hours & killed +35 civilians .
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) May 29, 2017
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) June 1, 2017
Thus, we can be sure that local activists believe the international coalition and/or Kurdish militias were responsible for the strike the aftermath of which is shown in the Russian MoD’s imagery. However, this in itself does not prove this was not a Russian airstrike. There are known cases when activists on the ground wrongly determined the party responsible for an attack. For example, a US airstrike on a mosque in Aleppo which killed civilians was initially blamed on the Russian Air Force. In this case, the opposite may have occured.
It should also be noted that the "Raqqa is being slaughtered silently" activists did not report the deaths of 30 ISIS commanders or 300 rank-and-file militants claimed by the Russian MoD.
Curiously, the Ministry of Defense did not publish a video of the airstrike. This is even more puzzling given that in February 2017 the MoD did publish a video of a strike 5 km north of Raqqa, less than 7 km from the location of the alleged May 28 airstrike.
— Samir (@obretix) February 18, 2017
The situation could be clarified by the MoD publishing the airstrike’s video or a comment from the US representatives, which, according to the MoD’s statement, were "notified in advance via established channels of the time and location of Russian Air Force activities".
Was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed?
There are certain doubts that he was. For example, Washington Post’s Middle Eastern reported Louisa Loveluck, when commenting on the MoD statement, claimed the ISIS leader was believed to have left the area some time ago:
Russian army claims it *might* have killed ISIS leader Baghdadi in airstrike last month. He's not believed to have been in area for a while. https://t.co/I4hYM83ndZ
— Louisa Loveluck (@leloveluck) June 16, 2017
In a conversation with Conflict Intelligence Team, the journalist said that her sources of this information were diplomats and experts monitoring the "Islamic State" group.
Back in March 2017, when Coalition-backed Kurdish and Arab militias were just approaching Raqqa’s suburbs, New York Times reported citing a US defense official that part of ISIS leadership had left Raqqa for their other strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
- Local activists confirm that an attack did happen on May 28 at the location given by the Russian Ministry of Defense. However, they believe the attack was performed by the Coalition and/or Kurdish YPG militias (yet they could be mistaken) and don’t report any killings of ISIS commanders.
- A video of the Russian airstrike, which could back the MoD’s claims, for some reason was not published, even though the MoD did publish videos of earlier strikes in the area.
- Even if the strike was indeed dealt by the Russian Air Force, there are doubts it could have killed al-Baghdadi, since, according to diplomats, military officials and experts, he had left the Raqqa area some time before.
- Despite all of the above, it is premature to state with certainty the MoD’s claim is wrong. As mentioned earlier, the situation could be clarified by publishing the airstrike video or a comment from the anti-ISIS coalition’s representative.