Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State with a $25 million United States bounty on his head, may be buried underneath the rubble of a building somewhere outside of Raqqa. That, at least, is what the Russian Defense Ministry claimed Friday.
Based on Moscow's version of events, Baghdadi was meeting with dozens of high-level Islamic State commanders in a compound outside of the group's capital in late May, discussing how to save as much of the Islamic State's military leadership as possible from being annihilated by the U.S.-supported push into the city. The Russians apparently got wind of the meeting, and dispatched fighter and bomber aircraft to the location in the hope of obliterating the Islamic State's cadre of senior and mid-ranking commanders in one fell swoop.
The airstrikes lasted about 10 minutes, and the Russian military claims that 30 Islamic State commanders were killed, as well as 300 other fighters guarding the area.
Before we pop the champagne corks and celebrate the killing of the world's most notorious terrorist since Osama bin Laden, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First off, Baghdadi's death has been reported so many times in the past that it has become a ritual to throw statements like this away in the garbage without even looking at them. U.S., Iraqi, and Syrian officials have all believed at one time or another that the Islamic State chief was either blown to smithereens or seriously incapacitated.
An April 2015 report in The Guadian cited sources claiming that a coalition airstrike on a convoy in western Iraq injured Baghdadi so badly that he was close to death and rendered inoperable. Iraqi state TV has published numerous accounts of Baghdadi being taken out, including a June 2016 report alleging that he died during an air attack on one of the Islamic State's headquarters near the Syrian border. The Iraqi military reported a similar story this February: U.S. military officials quickly said that they had no information to corroborate it.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 12 times, shame on me.
This just might be more "fake news" pouring out of Moscow.
But let's assume for a moment that the Russians are actually telling the truth and that Baghdadi is now in fact dead. Will his killing really have that much of an impact on the group's capacity? History tells us the answer in "no."
The United States has killed plenty of high-value terrorist operatives over the past decade and a half.
When President George W. Bush addressed the public in June 2006 and proudly told them that Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was tracked by U.S. military intelligence to a farmhouse north of Baghdad and killed by two 500-pound bombs, the country rejoiced. Maybe this would be the beginning of the end for the group. "[T]he ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders," Bush said at the time. Ditto U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad: "a good day for Iraq," and "a good day for Americans as well."
The celebration of Zarqawi's killing, however, was a short-term pain reliever to U.S. commanders. AQI's pace of operations actually increased post-Zarqawi, with suicide bombings, assassinations, car bombings, and indiscriminate killings of Shia civilians left thousands of Iraqi civilians dead every month.
In January 2006, when Zarqawi was still the emir of the organization, 1,546 Iraqis were killed in the violence. In January 2007, seven months after Zarqawi's demise, that toll was 3,017 -- a 95 percent jump in civilian casualties.
The point is this: While taking out the top guy of a terrorist group definitely feels exhilarating and is a symbolic victory, it isn't likely to bring that group to its knees.
While the Zarqawi case study is just one example, it's an instructive one: We can't afford to have the false hope that absolute victory is within our reach. It would be terrific if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi met his demise, but the Islamic State would continue to be a resilient enemy.
The war against the Islamic State won't end with Baghdadi's lifeless corpse.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities. His opinions are his own.
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