BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON/TOKYO – The shadowy leader of the Islamic State group who presided over its global jihad and became arguably the world’s most wanted man, is dead after being targeted by a U.S. military raid in Syria, President Donald Trump said Sunday.
“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” Trump said in a televised address at the White House, saying the U.S. had “brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice.”
As U.S. 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. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward.”
No U.S. personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of al-Baghdadi’s fighters or companions were killed with him, the president said.
While Al-Baghdadi’s body was mutilated after his suicide, DNA test results provided a positive identification, Trump said.
“Our reach is very long,” Trump said. “Baghdadi has been on the run for many years, long before I took office. But at my direction, as commander in chief of the united states, we obliterated his caliphate 100 percent in March of this year. Today’s events are another reminder that we will continue to pursue the remaining ISIS terrorists to their brutal end.”
The operation was built on CIA planning, a person familiar with the matter said, denying a report from Iraq that intelligence from that country’s government played a role. Trump didn’t hesitate to give the order to proceed, the person said.
Al-Baghdadi had long been sought by the United States, as head of a jihadi group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, declaring a caliphate. Islamic State has carried out atrocities against religious minorities and attacks on five continents — including those that killed Japanese nationals — in the name of a version of an ultrafanatic Islam that horrified mainstream Muslims.
A U.S. official said later that the U.S. mission involved special operations forces and took place in Syria’s Idlib region.
Al-Baghdadi has led IS since 2010, when it was still an underground offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. In recent years Islamic State has lost most of its territory, although it is still viewed as a threat.
It caused worldwide revulsion by beheading foreign nationals from countries including the United States, Britain and Japan.
In a January 2015 hostage crisis, IS released a video claiming to have abducted two Japanese nationals, war correspondent Kenji Goto, 47, and Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old self-styled security contractor.
After several days of back and forth with the Japanese government and other intermediaries over ransom demands and a potential prisoner exchange, the terrorist group beheaded both men, releasing a gruesome video of Goto’s death that deeply shook Japan.
Shortly after the pair’s deaths were announced, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said — in unusually forceful language — that “Japan will not give in to terrorism” and that the country will “work alongside the international community to make them (the Islamic State) pay for their sins.”
Abe also made it clear that Japan would continue to provide substantial economic and humanitarian aid to countries in the region caught up in the struggle with IS.
Al-Baghdadi had long been believed to be hiding somewhere along the Iraq-Syria border and the United States has offered a $25 million 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 ahead of Trump’s announcement.
The attacking U.S. forces removed the body of al-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 al-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 al-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 United States had resulted in a “successful operation,” in another apparent reference to the raid.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said nine people were killed during a two-hour raid, including two women and at least one child.
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 al-Baghdadi had arrived at the site of the U.S. raid some 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 U.S. operation in Idlib.
Turkish and U.S. military authorities exchanged and coordinated information ahead of an attack in Idlib, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said earlier, without elaborating.
U.S. magazine Newsweek, which first reported news of the raid, said it had been told by a U.S. Army official briefed on the raid that al-Baghdadi was dead.
Trump had earlier given 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 U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack America’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 Islamic State in Syria and that the move might allow the group to regain strength and pose a threat to U.S. interests.
The announcement about al-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 U.S. House of Representatives.
U.S. officials had feared IS would seek to capitalize on the upheaval in Syria but they also saw a chance Islamic State leaders might break from more secretive routines, potentially allowing the United States and its allies to detect them.
On Sept. 16, Islamic State’s media network issued a 30-minute audio message purporting to come from al-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.
Al-Baghdadi also said the United States and its proxies had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the United States 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 United Nations called a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi minority.
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 al-Baghdadi into a fugitive.
During a three-year push by a U.S.-led coalition, airstrikes killed most of his top lieutenants and there were conflicting reports over whether al-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 some fighters operate from the shadows in Syria’s desert and Iraqi cities.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5