The Iraqi military said Wednesday that ISIS’ No. 2 leader has been killed in a coalition airstrike — a claim that the Pentagon said it does not corroborate.
The airstrike struck a mosque in northern Iraq’s Tal Afar city, killing ISIS deputy Abu Alaa al-Afri and a senior ISIS security figure named Akram Qirbash, also known as the “Judge of Judges,” the Iraqi Defense Ministry said.
The Defense Ministry did not say when the men were killed. A senior Iraqi security official who did not want to be named discussing sensitive intelligence told CNN the strike happened Tuesday.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren told CNN that the United States cannot independently confirm that high-value ISIS targets were killed in Iraq.
U.S. Central Command said coalition aircraft “did not strike a mosque as some of the press reporting has alleged,” a statement said.
“We have significant mitigation measures in place within the targeting process and during the conduct of operations to reduce the potential risks of collateral damage and civilian casualties,” Central Command said.
ISIS has not made any comment.
Hisham al-Hashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government, has said that al-Afri also went by the name Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli — a name that was added to the U.S. Rewards for Justice list just last week. The U.S. State Department offered a $7 million reward for information on him — the highest for any ISIS leader apart from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is valued at $10 million.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, which designated him as a “specially designated global terrorist” exactly a year ago, the man known as al-Qaduli was born in the Iraqi city of Mosul in either 1957 or 1959.
CNN cannot independently confirm that al-Afri is one and the same as al-Qaduli, but the U.S. government has said that one of al-Qaduli’s aliases is Abu Ala. According to the State Department, al-Qaduli joined al Qaeda in Iraq — the predecessor group to ISIS — in 2004 and served as the group’s deputy leader and its commander in Mosul.
In February 2006, he traveled to Pakistan on behalf of then-al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to conduct an interview.
Al-Qaduli was captured in Iraq and jailed but released in 2012 and was said to have joined ISIS, spending part of 2012 in Syria, according to the U.S. Treasury.
Al-Afri is reputed to have a background as a physics teacher and to have been Osama bin Laden’s favorite candidate for the top job after Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, as it was then called, was killed in a joint operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces north of Baghdad in 2010.
Analysts who track ISIS say al-Afri is from Tal Afar, a town held by ISIS in the north of Iraq and a crucial gateway for the transit of jihadis to and from Mosul. He is one of several ethnic Turkmens at the top of the ISIS hierarchy.
One theory for why he was passed over for the top job is that unlike ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he was not from a family that could claim direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed.
Some analysts believe there were signs al-Afri may have been maneuvering to lay claim to the top job should al-Baghdadi have become incapacitated.
CNN contributor Michael Weiss, the co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” says his understanding is that al-Afri delivered the sermon at Friday prayers in Mosul’s al Zangi mosque last week, the same mosque Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced himself last July as the new “caliph.”
According to an analyst in touch with jihadi sources in Syria and Iraq, al-Afri was attempting to repaint his family history to claim lineage to the Prophet Mohammed.