Baghdad/Washington — US President Donald Trump on Sunday announced that Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during an overnight raid led by US military forces in Syria.
Baghdadi killed himself and three of his children by detonating an explosives-laden vest when he fled US forces into a dead-end tunnel during the attack, which took place in the Idlib region in northwest Syria, the US president said in a televised address to the nation from the White House.
Baghdadi has long been sought by the US, as head of a jihadist group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, declaring a caliphate. IS has carried out atrocities against religious minorities and attacks on five continents in the name of a version of an ultra-fanatic Islam that horrified mainstream Muslims.
He was targeted in an overnight raid, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters, but could not say whether the operation was successful. A US official said later that the US mission involved special operations forces and took place in Syria’s Idlib region.
Baghdadi has led IS since 2010, when it was still an underground offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. In recent years IS has lost most of its territory, though it is still viewed as a threat. Baghdadi was long been believed to be hiding somewhere along the Iraq-Syria border and the US had offered a $25m reward for his capture.
The raid in the early hours of Sunday involved helicopters, warplanes and ground clashes in the village of Barisha in Idlib province bordering Turkey, a commander of a militant faction in the region said.
The attacking US forces removed the body of Baghdadi, and that of another man believed to be his deputy, the commander said. The bodies of three other men and three women were also found, he said.
The attack was carried out using eight helicopters, according to observers in the area, in addition to surveillance planes, the commander said.
Two Iraqi security sources and two Iranian officials said they had received confirmation from Syria that Baghdadi had been killed.
“Our sources from inside Syria have confirmed to the Iraqi intelligence team tasked with pursuing Baghdadi that he has been killed with his personal bodyguard in Idlib [province] after his hiding place was discovered when he tried to get his family out of Idlib towards the Turkish border,” one of the Iraqi officials said.
Iraqi state television broadcast night-time footage of an explosion and daytime images of a crater in the ground and what it said was the aftermath of the raid, including torn and bloodstained clothes.
Iraqi intelligence agencies had helped pinpoint Baghdadi’s location, the broadcaster quoted an expert on terrorism as saying.
The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said joint intelligence work with the US had resulted in a “successful operation”, in another apparent reference to the raid.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said nine people were killed during a two-hour raid, including two women and at least one child. It could not confirm whether Baghdadi was among the dead.
A house thought to be the target of the raid was struck from the air, and fighters then descended from helicopters and engaged in ground clashes, said the observatory, which has a network of sources in Syria.
A senior Turkish official said Baghdadi had arrived at the site of the US raid about 48 hours before it took place, adding that Turkey’s military — which has been waging its own offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria — had advance knowledge of the US operation in Idlib.
Turkish and US military authorities exchanged and co-ordinated information ahead of an attack in Idlib, Turkey’s defence ministry said earlier, without elaborating.
US magazine Newsweek, which first reported news of the raid, said it had been told by a US Army official briefed on the raid that Baghdadi was dead.
Trump gave an indication that something was afoot when he tweeted without explanation, “Something very big has just happened!”
Trump has faced withering criticism from both his fellow Republicans and Democrats for announcing that he was pulling out US troops from northeastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack the US’s Kurdish allies as it sought to set up a “safe zone”.
Many critics of the pullout have expressed concern both at the abandoning of the Kurdish forces who had been instrumental in defeating IS in Syria and that the move might allow the group to regain strength and pose a threat to US interests.
An announcement about Baghdadi’s death could help blunt those concerns, as well as boosting Trump domestically at a time when he is facing an impeachment inquiry in the US House of Representatives.
US officials had feared IS would seek to capitalise on the upheaval in Syria but they also saw a chance IS leaders might break from more secretive routines, potentially allowing the US and its allies to detect them.
On September 16, Islamic State’s media network issued a 30-minute audio message purporting to come from Baghdadi, in which he said operations were taking place daily and called on supporters to free women jailed in camps in Iraq and Syria over their alleged links to his group.
Baghdadi also said the US and its proxies had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the US had been “dragged” into Mali and Niger.
At the height of its power, IS ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
Thousands of civilians were killed by the group as it mounted what the UN called a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi minority. It also caused worldwide revulsion by beheading foreign nationals from countries including the US, Britain and Japan.
The group has claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in dozens of cities including Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in nearby Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But in 2017 IS lost control of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and quickly thereafter almost all of its territory, turning Baghdadi into a fugitive.
During a three-year push by a US-led coalition, air strikes killed most of his top lieutenants and there were conflicting reports over whether Baghdadi was alive until IS published a video message by him in April.
Despite losing its last significant territory, IS is believed to have sleeper cells around the world, and its fighters operate from the shadows in Syria’s desert and Iraqi cities.