The Iraqi government seems to have gotten a jump on the summer reruns. First there was the fourth (or twentieth, maybe, I’m losing count) claim that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been grievously, maybe mortally, wounded in a coalition airstrike, this one supposedly having come in March. ISIS, as it turns out, just released an audio message that appears to be from Baghdadi himself and that apparently includes a pointed criticism of Saudi Arabia’s “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen (presumably for failing to massacre Shiʿa efficiently enough for ISIS’s taste), which began on March 26, over a week after he was supposed to have been hit in the March 18 airstrike. Interestingly, though, as far as I can tell from the Guardian’s description, the recording apparently only refers to the “Decisive Storm” phase of the Yemen campaign (Baghdadi’s punchline apparently refers to it as a “storm of delusion”), and not to the “Restoring Hope” phase that began on April 21. Again, I’m just going by the Guardian’s report here, so don’t read too much into that. The appearance of an audio recording doesn’t undercut the main Iraqi claim, which is that Baghdadi was paralyzed in the strike, but it does suggest that, unless his condition has worsened since the recording was made, he’s not exactly on death’s door.
At the same time Baghdadi’s audo message was filtering out into the world, the Iraqi government put out a new claim that combines those “Baghdadi killed in airstrike” rumors with those old, evergreen “Al-Qaeda number 2 killed” stories to form a kind of hybrid rerun thing. They’re claiming that a coalition airstrike near the city of Tal Afar killed ISIS’s number 2 guy, Abu Alaa al-Afari, earlier this week. The Pentagon acknowledges striking targets around Tal Afar this week but denies that they were targeting Afari and says they have no information that would allow them to confirm the Iraqi claim. There are problems on both sides of this story. On the one hand, various Iraqi groups, including the government, have a habit of prematurely declaring the death of high-profile terrorist leaders for years now (Abu Musʿab al-Zarqawi was “killed” so many times before his actual death that it became hard to keep track), so buyer beware on those stories. On the other hand, the strike that Baghdad says killed Afari supposedly hit a mosque, which for obvious reasons is a real sensitive issue for American forces, so you can see why the Pentagon would be unwilling to talk about this story even if it were true.
Afari trained with Al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and was Zarqawi’s representative in Mosul back when ISIS was Al-Qaeda in Iraq, so he’s been at this for a long time. He was considered as a possible choice to run the group in 2010 before Baghdadi was chosen, and has allegedly been de facto running ISIS since Baghdadi’s supposed injuries in March. It’s been theorized that he would have replaced Baghdadi as caliph if Baghdadi were to die, but Aron Lund points out in this piece that it’s highly unlikely the (probably) Turkmen Afari could assume the caliphate when ISIS appears to subscribe to the long-established argument that a caliph must belong to the same Arab Quraysh tribe as Muhammad (or, even more restrictively, from Muhammad’s Hashemite clan within the Quraysh tribe). Baghdadi’s tribe claims to descend from Muhammad himself, via his grandson Husayn, so this isn’t a problem for him. There are other top ISIS officials who claim similar lines of descent, so it’s likely that one of them will ultimately succeed Baghdadi as caliph when the time comes. But Afari does seem to be pretty important in ISIS’s day-to-day operations, so his loss, whether that’s already happened or not, would be felt.