US-led coalition says Syria strike killed ‘top ISIS cleric’

Iraqi soldiers are pictured with an ISIS flag, claimed after fighting the militants in western Mosul, June 17, 2017.
Iraqi soldiers are pictured with an ISIS flag, claimed after fighting the militants in western Mosul, June 17, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (AFP) – The US-led coalition said on Tuesday (June 20) it had killed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group’s self-proclaimed top cleric in an air strike in May on a Syrian town near the Iraqi border.

“Coalition forces killed Turki Binali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti’ or chief cleric of ISIS in an air strike May 31 in Mayadeen, Syria,” the coalition said in a statement, using an acronym for the extremist group.

Rumours of Binali’s death had circulated after the strike, but there was no official confirmation until the statement.

It described Binali as “a close confidant” of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and said he “had a central role in recruiting foreign terrorist fighters and provoking terrorist attacks around the world.”

A 2016 US Treasury Department counter-terrorism designation identified Binali as a citizen of Bahrain born in the country in 1984.

He was also listed under UN sanctions, which described him as having been chosen as ISIS' “chief religious adviser” in 2014.

He served as head of ISIS' religious compliance police, a recruiter of foreign fighters and on a team of advisers to Baghdadi, according to the UN listing.

He was killed in a strike that came days after another US-led coalition air raid on Mayadeen that reportedly killed the founder of ISIS’ notorious Amaq propaganda agency.

The May 29 strike killed Rayan Mashaal, also known as Baraa Kadek, according to local Syrian activists, though the coalition has not yet confirmed that.

The ISIS deaths come as the group is under major pressure in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Its fighters are surrounded in the Old City of Iraq’s Mosul, and under attack in their Syrian stronghold of Raqa from a US-backed alliance that has also seized four neighbourhoods of the city.

Russia said on Friday it was seeking to verify whether Baghdadi was killed when its warplanes hit the group’s leaders in a night raid in Syria last month.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests before spiralling into a war that has drawn in militants and foreign powers.