Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive chief of the Islamic State, has been killed by the US special forces in a raid in northwest Syria on Saturday, President Donald Trump announced on Sunday.
President Trump confirmed the death of the ISIS leader during a press conference at the White House.
“Last night the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” Trump said.
“He was the founder and leader of ISIS. The most ruthless and violent terror organization anywhere in the world. The United States has been searching for Baghdadi for many years. Capturing or killing Baghdadi has been the top national security priority of my administration,” he said.
US President Donald Trump: Last night the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organisation anywhere in the world. pic.twitter.com/k1RoL4HlHX
ANI (@ANI) October 27, 2019
Despite being hunted by the world’s best intelligence agencies and the US authorities offering a whopping USD 25 million reward for information leading to his capture, Baghdadi has proved to be incredibly elusive.
Trump on late Saturday had teased a major announcement, tweeting that “Something very big has just happened!” By the morning, he was thanking Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish fighters in Syria for their support.
Something very big has just happened!
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2019
Baghdadi joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which merged with other Islamist groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq. He became the group’s leader in 2010 after his predecessor was killed by US forces.
He renamed the group to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, widely known as ISIL or ISIS in 2013 and announced his “caliphate” in 2014.
A senior Iraqi security official told The Associated Press that Iraqi intelligence played a part in the operation. Al-Baghdadi and his wife detonated explosive vests they were wearing during the US commando operation, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the sensitive information and spoke on condition of anonymity. He added that other IS leaders were killed in the attack.
The killing of al-Baghdadi marks a significant foreign policy success for Trump, coming at one of the lowest points in his presidency as he is mired in impeachment proceedings and facing widespread Republican condemnation for his Syria policy.
How did the US manage to kill Baghdadi?
It said the helicopters targeted IS positions with heavy strikes for about 120 minutes, during which jihadists fired at the aircraft with heavy weapons. The Britain-based Observatory, which operates through a network of activists on the ground, documented the death of nine people as a result of the coalition helicopter attack. It was not immediately known whether al-Baghdadi was one of them, it said.
Al-Baghdadi’s presence in the village, a few kilometers from the Turkish border, would come as a surprise, even if some IS leaders are believed to have fled to Idlib after losing their last sliver of territory in Syria to US-allied Kurdish forces in March.
The surrounding areas are largely controlled by an IS rival, the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, although other jihadi groups sympathetic to IS operate there. Unverified video circulated online by Syrian groups appeared to support the Observatory claim that the operation occurred in Barisha.
The intelligence source on the militant leader’s whereabouts could not be immediately confirmed, but both Iraqi and Kurdish officials claimed a role. The Turkish military also tweeted that before the operation in Idlib, it exchanged information and coordinated with US military authorities.
Kurdish forces appeared ready to portray al-Baghdadi’s death as a joint victory for their faltering alliance with the US, weeks after Trump ordered American forces to withdraw from northeastern Syria, all but abandoning Washington’s allies to a wide-ranging Turkish assault.
Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
Al-Baghdadi has led IS for the last five years, presiding over its ascendancy as it cultivated a reputation for beheadings and attracted tens of thousands of followers to a sprawling and self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. He remained among the few IS commanders still at large despite multiple claims in recent years about his death and even as his so-called caliphate dramatically shrank, with many supporters who joined the cause either imprisoned or jailed.
His exhortations were instrumental in inspiring terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and in the United States. Shifting away from the airline hijackings and other mass-casualty attacks that came to define al-Qaida, al-Baghdadi and other IS leaders supported smaller-scale acts of violence that would be harder for law enforcement to prepare for and prevent.
They encouraged jihadists who could not travel to the caliphate to kill where they were, with whatever weapon they had at their disposal. In the US, multiple extremists have pledged their allegiance to al-Baghdadi on social media, including a woman who along with her husband committed a 2015 massacre at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California.
With a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, al-Baghdadi has been far less visible in recent years, releasing only sporadic audio recordings, including one just last month in which he called on members of the extremist group to do all they could to free IS detainees and women held in jails and camps.