Russia claims that it killed Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a May 28 airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa, Syria.
For a start, the Russians claim there may have been over 300 Islamic State casualties at the strike location. That seems unlikely for two reasons.
First, ISIS leaders do not meet in large groups. They know that doing so will attract the attention of U.S. intelligence and invite their demise. Second, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) says that ISIS suffered around 40 total casualties in all known airstrikes around Raqqa from May 25 - May 30. And the SOHR has proven itself a far more reliable source of information than the Russian military. If anywhere near 300 Islamic State fighters had been killed, the SOHR would have reported it.
Next, it would be extremely odd if al-Baghdadi was anywhere near to where the Russians say their airstrike occurred.
That's because Raqqa has been effectively surrounded by U.S. and Kurdish forces for the last few months. While it doesn't admit it, the Islamic State knows Raqqa will fall and has evacuated key personnel accordingly. Most Islamic State leaders and operations planners are now in central eastern Syria, further down the Euphrates river.
There's also the fact that al-Baghdadi is the Islamic State's most important figure. Correspondingly, al-Baghdadi travels in small groups and limits his contact to all but the most trusted officials. Considering the modus operandi of Islamic State leaders, al-Baghdadi may travel with as few as two or three bodyguards at a time. Put simply, it requires a major stretch of the imagination to believe al-Baghdadi was running around Raqqa governate with hundreds of fighters.Then there's the issue of Russian intelligence. Unlike the U.S.-led international coalition, Russia lacks a coordinated full-spectrum intelligence gathering capability in Syria. This restrains Russian targeting officers from identifying Islamic State targets. Moreover, when it comes to Syria, the Russians are not terribly concerned with the Islamic State.
As I've explained, the Russian priority rests with securing Assad and destroying the more-moderate rebels who oppose him. That mission, fixed in western and southern Syria, is where Russia prioritizes its military and intelligence resources. The fight around Raqqa and in eastern Syria is dominated by the U.S. led coalition.
Finally, when they do occur, Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State often kill as many civilians as they do terrorists. It is highly unlikely Russia gathered intelligence on Baghdadi's location.
Of course, maybe Russia got lucky. And if they did, then great. After all, al-Baghdadi's demise would be a major (albeit not catastrophic) blow to the Islamic State.
Judged objectively, however, Russia's claims seem unlikely. In the end, I think Russia's claim is designed to persuade the Trump administration that it can be a valuable partner against the Islamic State.