The claim

“Trump Captures Isis Leader on Day One of Airstrikes” –, 23 January 2017

This July 5, 2014 photo shows an image grab taken from a propaganda video released by al-Furqan Media allegedly showing the leader of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Caliph Ibrahim, adressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Baghdadi, who on June 29 proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq, purportedly ordered all Muslims to obey him in the video released on social media. In early 2014 the self-styled Islamic State entered the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, declaring it their capital and beginning a reign of terror marked by grisly public executions. Armed sharia police patrolled the streets as "enemies" of the regime were crucified or decapitated, their severed heads impaled on spikes in the city square. Student Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends decided to form "Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered" (RBSS), a band of courageous citizen journalists who risk their lives to document IS atrocities. / AFP / - (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

The background

A rumour has been echoing around the web that the leader of the so-called Islamic State group was seriously injured or even captured by the US-led coalition fighting his forces in Iraq early this week.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the man who claimed to have created a new Islamic caliphate in 2014, was said to have been the target of a successful airstrike.

Several UK news sites ran with the news that there were local reports of an attack on al-Baghdadi a social media meme quickly sprang up, with supporters of new US president Donald Trump claiming a major victory for the incoming administration.

This appears to be wishful thinking on their part. There is actually no evidence that any harm has come to Baghdadi, and the US military appears to be working on the assumption that he is still at large.

The analysis

This story has been widely shared and retweeted, with Trump supporters hailing a major military success for the new President.

Many posters linked to articles on dubious news sites which reported Baghdadi’s capture with no evidence or sources provided.


On Monday, several British newspaper websites – including the Express, the Mail, the Sun and the Mirror, ran with the story that there were local claims of the self-styled “caliph” being “badly” or “critically “injured by a coalition airstrike on al-Ba’aj in northern Iraq.

All attributed the claims to local reports, with no further details of sources given.

The Sun noted that Baghdadi’s death has been reported several times in the past, but Pentagon officials believe he is still alive.

A news site with a network of local sources called Iraq Oil Report reported that “rumours” were spreading among Iraqi forces – mainly the Shia militia fighters of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – that al-Baghdadi was pinned down in the Ba’aj area by a US-led operation.

This article didn’t mention physical harm befalling the Isis leader and was careful to say that the story was just an unverified rumour.

Iraq Oil Report hasn’t run a follow-up story on al-Baghdadi’s supposed involvement, so there’s nothing to suggest that this was more than just a battlefield rumour.

A Twitter feed associated with the PMF went further, saying Baghdadi had reportedly been killed or captured. The tweet urged readers to “stay tuned”. But no more claims or evidence was forthcoming and the feed hasn’t referred to Baghdadi since then.


On Monday, Fox News producer Lucas Tomlinson tweeted that the Pentagon believed the story to be false, citing unnamed officials.

A spokesman for United States Central Command told FactCheck: “We are aware of the reports in the media regarding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but we have no information to confirm these reports.”

He added: “The reward offered by the Department of State has not changed” and directed us to the US State Department page offering a $25m reward for information that leads to the terror leader being brought to justice.

Trump effect?

Donald Trump supporters were quick to claim the hit on al-Baghdadi as a victory for the new administration, with some contrasting the apparent quick win for Trump with Obama’s failure to kill or capture him.


Apart from the obvious problem that there is no real evidence of any harm coming to the Isis leader, there is a second problem with the timing.

Even if al-Baghdadi was killed or injured, the reports refer to an attack on Sunday 22 January, the day before Donald Trump’s first working day as president, and James Mattis’s first full day as Secretary of Defense.

For this to have anything to do with the Trump team, you would have to believe that they assumed instant direct operational control of US military strikes in Iraq over the inauguration weekend, before actually arriving at their desks.

In fact, there is no evidence yet of the new administration putting any change of tactics against Isis into operation yet.

Before being elected, Trump promised a new tougher strategy against the Islamist insurgency in Iraq.

He pledged that on his very first day in charge, he would “convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction: They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for defeating Isis”.

Trump’s movements on Monday were well covered by the US press, and there was no mention of any meetings with generals. Even if it had happened, it’s clear that the new “plan for defeating Isis” doesn’t exist yet.

Some of the reporting around this on dubious news sites patently false on this point, claiming that Trump fulfilled this campaign promise when there is no evidence that he did.

The verdict

There’s no firm evidence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been injured, killed or captured.

The source for this appears to be an unverified rumour among militia fighters in Iraq, and nothing emerged subsequently to firm it up.

The US military has told us they cannot confirm the reports but as far as they are concerned, the reward for information leading to al-Baghdadi’s capture is still very much up for grabs.

Many apparently false reports of Baghdadi’s demise have emerged in the past.

Even if Baghdadi had been hit by an airstrike on Sunday, it would be very difficult for any senior members of the Trump administration to try to take credit for this, as none of them had begun their first working day when the bombs fell.

As so often, some of the reporting around this on alternative internet news sites has been wildly inaccurate.