WASHINGTON: Donald Trump on Sunday announced that Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed during an overnight raid led by US military forces in Syria.
“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, panic and dread, terrified of the American forces coming down on him," the US President said in a televised address to the nation from the White House.
Trump said Al-Baghdadi died in north-west Syria after running into a dead-end tunnel during a “daring and dangerous” operation.
“He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and his three children. His body was mutilated by the blasts. The tunnel had caved on him,” Trump added.
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone.”
Al-Baghdadi’s identity was confirmed by a DNA test conducted at the scene, the president said.
Trump said that the raid – which required flying more than an hour by helicopter in both directions from an undisclosed base – had been accomplished by help from Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
Al-Baghdadi led Daesh for the last five years, presiding over its ascendancy as it cultivated a reputation for beheadings and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to a sprawling and self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
He remained among the few Daesh 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.
With a $25 million US bounty on his head, Al-Baghdadi had 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 group to do all they could to free Daesh detainees and women held in jails and camps.
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Iraqi state television also posted another video claimed to be the blast site, which showed rubble and clothes strewn around a huge crater.
The death of Al-Baghdadi comes as a big boost for Trump, whose abrupt decision to withdraw a small but effective deployment of US forces from Syria caused fears that it would give Daesh remnants and sleeper cells a chance to regroup.
Trump had teased the news late Saturday with an enigmatic tweet saying merely that “Something very big has just happened!”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the operation took place after its intelligence pinpointed Al-Baghdadi’s location.
Iraq also said it had provided his location.
"After constant monitoring and the formation of a specialised task force over an entire year, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service acting on accurate information was able to locate the den in which the head of Daesh terrorists Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and those with him were hiding in the Syrian province of Idlib," the Iraqi military said.
Turkey on Sunday said there was ‘coordination’ between Ankara and Washington before the operation.
“Prior to the US Operation in Idlib Province of Syria last night, information exchange and coordination between the military authorities of both countries took place,” the Turkish defense ministry said.
A war monitor said US helicopters dropped forces in an area of Syria's Idlib province where “groups linked to the Islamic State group” were present.
The helicopters targeted a home and a car outside the village of Barisha in Idlib province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
— Arab News (@arabnews) October 27, 2019
The operation killed nine people including a Daesh senior leader called Abu Yamaan as well as a child and two women, it said.
An AFP correspondent outside Barisha saw a minibus scorched to cinders by the side of the road, and windows shattered in a neighbor's house.
A resident in the area who gave his name as Abdel Hameed said he rushed to the place of the attack after he heard helicopters, gunfire and strikes in the night.
"The home had collapsed and next to it there was a destroyed tent and vehicle. There were two people killed inside" the car, he said.
Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements, told Al-Arabiya that it was interesting Baghdadi was hiding next to the Turkish border, especially with the history between Turkey and Daesh.
“I don’t know why Trump chose to kill him now, maybe he was trying to show that US withdrawal does not mean they will stop fighting terrorist organizations, or maybe because US elections are coming up,” he said.
“But it will be attributed to Trump and his administration, that they were able to kill the Daesh leader [although] in reality, Daesh will not be that affected … they can find other leaders who will take the lead.”
Ibrahim Al-Idlibi, a Syrian journalist, told Al-Arabiya the place that US forces raided could not be Baghdadi’s actually hiding place, as it was “too open.”
“He was possibly meeting with other countries’ intelligence experts. We do not know who was he meeting there or who gave the information that he was there,” he said.
Hours after the Idlib raid, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said Daesh spokesman Abu Al-Hassan Al-MuHajjir, described as Al-Baghdadi’s right-hand man, had also been killed in a joint raid by Kurdish-led and US forces in northern Syria.
The death of Al-Baghdadi is another severe blow to Daesh, which has been in disarray and has no declared successor as leader. Iraqi analyst Hisham Al-Hashemi said it would lead to a split in the terror group.
“The split is inevitable, it always happens when any radical group loses a charismatic leader,” he said.
At the height of its so-called “caliphate,” Daesh 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.
It killed thousands of civilians in a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi minority, and caused worldwide revulsion by beheading foreign nationals from countries including the US, Britain and Japan.
The group also carried out or inspired attacks in Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt.
But in 2017 Daesh lost control of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and then almost all of its territory, turning Al-Baghdadi into a fugitive.