ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive, and most likely in hiding, a top U.S. officer in charge of forces fighting the terrorist group said Thursday.
Al-Baghdadi, who declared a caliphate governed by Islamic law from a mosque in Mosul in 2014, was allegedly killed in a Russian airstrike earlier this year.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said he based his claim on 'lack of evidence' of al-Baghdadi's death as well as intelligence of the contrary.
FILE - This file image made from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears to be still alive, a top U.S. military commander said Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, contradicting Russia's claims that it probably killed the top counterterror target months ago.(Militant video via AP, File)
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon over video-link from his headquarters in Baghdad, Townsend said: 'Do I believe he's alive? Yes.'
He said his belief stemmed from a lack of evidence he had seen - 'rumour or otherwise' - that al-Baghdadi was dead.
He then added: 'There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he's alive.' Townsend did not elaborate on the intelligence.
Russian officials said in June there was a 'high probability' that al-Baghdadi died when one of their airstrikes hit a gathering of ISIS commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
However, come July, Kremlin admitted that they were struggling to confirm that al-Baghdadi had died, and both Western and Iraqi officials have remained skeptical.
Last month, Kurdish counter-terrorism official Lahur Talabany said he was 99 per cent sure that al-Baghdadi had simply gone into hiding.
He said: 'Don't forget his roots go back to al-Qaeda days in Iraq. He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing.'
The only 'confirmation' has been from the British-based monitoring group The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who said in July: '(We have) confirmed information from leaders, including one of the first rank who is Syrian, in the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor.'
It was reported that ISIS had admitted al-Baghdadis death, seemingly confirming it when a senior member of the group - Abu Haitham al-Obaidi, tdeputy mayor in Hawija in northern Iraq, declared himself the new leader in July.
U.S. and coalition forces are actively searching for al-Baghdadi, Townsend said, adding that 'if they find him, they probably will kill him rather than capture him.'
A good guess about where