Russia claims 'Islamic State' group leaders killed in Syria airstrike

Four key leaders of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) have been killed in the airstrike on in eastern Syria, according to Russia defense ministry. Heavy clashes are continuing in the city of Deir el-Zour.

Russia's Ministry of Defense said on Friday four prominent leaders of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) group have been killed in an airstrike outside the city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria.

"As a result of a precision airstrike of the Russian air forces in the vicinity of Deir el-Zour city, a command post, communication center and some 40 ISIS fighters have been killed," the Russian defense ministry said Friday in a statement. The strike was carried out by Su-34 fighter-bombers and Su-35 fighters.

The strike followed an intelligence report that showed the IS commanders were meeting in an underground command post outside Deir el-Zour, the ministry said.

The Russian military named Gulmurod Khalimov and Abu Muhammad al-Shimali as two of the four IS leaders. The other two were not named. Khalimov, who had been described as the group's minister of war, suffered a "fatal injury," the ministry said. Khalimov defected to the militants in 2015 after serving as the head of the riot police force in Tajikistan

As a senior police commander, Khalimov travelled to the United States on several occasions for counter-terrorism training. Last year, the US placed a $3 million (2.49 million euro) bounty on his head.

Russia has been providing air cover for Syrian President Bashar Assad's offensive against IS since 2015.

Al-Shimali is reported to have supervised the movement of foreign fighters into Syria and processed the group's new recruits.

Heavy fighting is taking place between Syrian government forces and IS around Deir el-Zour as the militants fight to reinstate a years-long siege of the city. 

Syria denies chemical weapons

Separately the Syrian government issued a statement on Friday denying United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria claims it has "reasonable grounds" to believe the Syrian government was responsible for the April attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed at least 83 civilians.

The commission collected information from satellite images, video, photos, medical records, and over 300 interviews. However, the government said the information had come from "terrorists or their agents in the region."

ap/jm (Reuters, AP, AFP)

Conflicts

Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.

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Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.

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Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.

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How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.

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Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.

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What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.

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How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.