A senior Islamic State figure has declared himself as leader of the terror cult as senior figures prepare to fight each other for the position after the apparent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to reports.
The extremist group has been thrown into chaos after the suspected death of brutal al-Baghdadi and a bloody power struggle appears inevitable.
Iyad al-Obaidi, ISIS war minister and a former Iraqi army officers under Saddam Hussein, is understood to have stepped forward to claim the leadership in a direct challenge to his opponents.
Al-Obaidi and his leadership rival Ayad al-Jumaili joined the Sunni Salafist insurgency in Iraq in 2003, following the US-led invasion which empowered Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.
They have been al-Baghdadi’s top aides since air strikes in 2016 killed his then-deputy Abu Ali al-Anbari, his Chechen war minister Abu Omar al-Shishani and his Syrian chief propagandist, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several Middle East governments on ISIS affairs, said: “Jumaili recognises Obaidi as his senior but there is no clear successor and, depending on conditions, it can be either of the two who succeeds Baghdadi.”
Al-Baghdadi awarded himself the title of caliph – the chief Muslim civil and religious ruler, regarded as the successor of the Prophet Mohammad – in 2014.
It is unlikely al-Obaidi would become caliph because he lacks religious standing and ISIS has lost so much of its territory.
Fadhel Abu Ragheef, another Iraqi expert on the extremist group, said: “They don’t belong to the Prophet Mohammad’s lineage.
“The group has no longer ‘a land to rule’ or ‘Ardh al-Tamkeen’. And none is well versed in Islamic theology.”
There has been no official confirmation of al-Baghdadi’s death.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had received ”confirmed information” that al-Baghdadi had been killed in airstrike on June 8.
Russia’s Defence Ministry claimed it killed al-Baghdadi when it bombed a gathering of ISIS commanders on the outskirts of the group’s besieged capital Raqqa in Syria.
But Western and Iraqi authorities remain sceptical because al-Baghdadi’s death has been wrongly reported several times before, and the Pentagon stated it is unable to confirm the latest reports.
The death of Baghdadi, who declared a caliphate from a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, would be one of the biggest blows yet to the jihadist group, which has just been driven out of the Iraqi city of Mosul after a bloody battle.
US intelligence officials say they believe ISIS has moved most of its surviving leaders to al-Mayadin in Syria’a Euphrates Valley, southeast of Raqqa.
Among the operations moved to al-Mayadin, about 50 miles west of the Iraqi border, were its online propaganda operation and its limited command and control of attacks in Europe and elsewhere.