WASHINGTON (AP) – The shadowy leader of the Islamic State (IS) group became arguably the world’s most wanted man, is dead after being targetted by a United States (US) military raid in Syria, President Donald Trump said yesterday.
“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” Trump announced at the White House, saying the US had “brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice.”
As US forces bore down on him, Trump said al-Baghdadi fled into a tunnel with three of his children and detonated a suicide vest. “He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said.
A US official told The Associated Press late last Saturday that al-Baghdadi was targetted in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. Trump late last 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.
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 authorised 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.
The recent pullback of US troops he ordered from northeastern Syria raised a storm of bipartisan criticism in Washington that the militant group could regain strength after it had lost vast stretches of territory it had once controlled. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syria war monitor, reported an attack carried out by a squadron of eight helicopters accompanied by a warplane belonging to the international coalition on positions of the Hurras al-Deen, an al-Qaeda-linked group, in the Barisha area north of Idlib city, after midnight last Saturday.
It said the helicopters targetted IS positions with heavy strikes for about 120 minutes, during which extremists 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 kilometres 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-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, although other extremist 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 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-Qaeda, 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 extremists who could not travel to the caliphate to kill where they were, with whatever weapon they had at their disposal.
With a USD25 million US 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.
The purported audio was his first public statement since last April, when he appeared in a video for the first time in five years.
Though at minimum a symbolic victory for Western counterterrorism efforts, his death would have unknown practical impact on possible future attacks.
He had been largely regarded as a symbolic figurehead of the global terrorist network and was described as “irrelevant for a long time” by a coalition spokesman in 2017. Al-Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq, and adopted his nom de guerre early on. Because of anti-US militant activity, he was detained by US forces in Iraq and sent to Bucca prison in February 2004, according to IS-affiliated websites.
He was released 10 months later, after which he joined the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He later assumed control of the group, known at the time as the IS of Iraq.