Washington // A top ISIL commander is believed to have been killed in a US air strike in northeastern Syria, a US official said.
The target of the March 4 attack was Omar Al Shishani, a red-bearded Georgian fighting with the extremist group in Syria, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, cautioning that results of the operation were still being assessed.
A US official speaking on condition of anonymity later said Al Shishani “likely died” in the assault by waves of US warplanes and drones, along with 12 other ISIL fighters.
Al Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is ranked among the most wanted under a US programme with a US$5 million (Dh18.36m) bounty on his head.
The US treasury designated Al Shishani a foreign terrorist fighter in 2014, and said he maintained “unique authority” within ISIL. The Georgian was “the ISIL equivalent of the secretary of defence”, the US official said.
The US stopped short of declaring him dead.
The lack of a US presence on the ground makes it difficult to assess the success of operations targeting militants in Syria, and Al Shishani’s death has been falsely reported several times.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Al Shishani as “a battle-tested leader with experience who had led ISIL fighters in numerous engagements in Iraq and Syria”.
His death, if confirmed, would hinder ISIL’s foreign recruitment efforts, especially from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions, and its attempts to defend its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
Al Shishani’s father, Taimouraz Batirashvili, told the Russian news agency Interfax that he was unable to confirm the death.
“I know nothing about the death of my son. They announce his death almost every month.”
In the recent assault, waves of US aircraft struck near Al Shadadi, a town in northeastern Syria that was retaken from ISIL last month by local anti-ISIL fighters allied with the US-led coalition.
The US official said it was “unusual and noteworthy” that Al Shishani had travelled from ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa to Al Shadadi.
* Agence France-Presse