WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is assuming that Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and guiding the terror group in some capacity, Mattis said Friday.

“I think Baghdadi’s alive,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.

Mattis declined to say why he thinks Baghdadi is still alive. Barring evidence that Baghdadi has continued to be engaged in the command and control of the organization, Mattis suggested that the ISIS leader may have assumed a different role, such as a spiritual or propaganda leader within ISIS.

“Until I see his body I am going to assume he is alive,” Mattis said.

Earlier Friday, Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Center, told a security forum in Aspen that the intelligence community has also seen no evidence of the ISIS leader’s death.

In June the Russian defense ministry claimed it had killed Baghdadi in an airstrike near Raqqa in May. Raqqa is the terror group’s de-facto headquarters in Syria.

U.S. officials have repeatedly challenged that claim but have not been able to prove he is still alive. Last week, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of the U.S. and coalition effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria said last week there was no evidence to show whether he was dead or alive.

“Despite all the helpful reports to us from every source imaginable, I’m unable to confirm or deny where he is or whether he is alive or dead,” Townsend told reporters via videoconference from Baghdad. “Let me just say for the record, my fervent hope is it is the latter.”


Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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