The chief of the Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Picture: AFP
The chief of the Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Picture: AFP

Most wanted terrorist dies by suicide, Trump confirms

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 US military raid in Syria, President Donald Trump said Sunday.

"Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead," Mr 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, Mr 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," Mr Trump said. "He died like a dog, he died like a coward."

Al-Baghdadi "died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way," Mr Trump later said at the White House news conference, calling him a "gutless animal".

Mr Trump confirmed he watched a video of the IS raid and likened it to watching a movie.

Mr Trump said the US military raid that took out Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a bigger deal than the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden during the Obama administration.

The president acknowledges that the death of bin Laden was significant, but he believes the news about al-Baghdadi is even bigger news.

Mr Trump says that bin Laden didn't become a global name in terrorism until the attacks of September 11, 2001. The president says that's in contrast to al-Baghdadi, who Mr Trump says is responsible for building a caliphate.

A US official told The Associated Press late Saturday that al-Baghdadi was targeted in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

 

President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday. Picture: AP/Andrew Harnik
President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday. Picture: AP/Andrew Harnik

 

Mr 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.

Mr Trump said on-site DNA confirmed that al-Baghdadi was killed in the raid.

He said debris from the tunnel where al-Baghdadi blew himself up in using an explosive vest made it difficult to get to his body.

But Mr Trump said Americans were able to move the debris and confirm al-Baghdadi's identity.

Mr Trump said those involved in the raid "brought body parts" back with them, even though there "wasn't much left" of al-Baghdadi's body.

He said "they have his DNA. More of it than they want."

President Donald Trump said that watching the raid that killed al-Baghdadi as it was underway felt "as though you were watching a movie." And he's suggesting that the video be released to the public to dissuade al-Baghdadi's followers.

Mr Trump said that he watched much of the mission unfold from the White House Situation Room on Saturday night.

 

 

 

President Donald Trump said al-Baghdadi died after running into a dead-end tunnel and igniting an explosive vest, killing himself and three of his young children.

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.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi grew to fame as the leader of ISIS, and inspired horrific acts - beheadings, throwing gay men off buildings and burning people in cages.

For three years there was a reward of US$25 million for his arrest - and his death has been falsely reported multiple times.

The killing of al-Baghdadi marks a significant foreign policy success for Mr 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 on Saturday.

IS operatives were believed to be hiding in the area, it said. 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 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-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 co-ordinated 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.

The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, tweeted: "Successful and historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America." 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 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.

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 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.

In that video, which included images of the extremist leader sitting in a white room with three others, al-Baghdadi praised Easter Day bombings that killed more than 250 people and called on militants to be a "thorn" against their enemies.

In 2014, he was a black-robed figure delivering a sermon from the pulpit of Mosul's Great Mosque of al-Nuri, his only known public appearance.

He urged Muslims around the world to swear allegiance to the caliphate and obey him as its leader.

 

 

"It is a burden to accept this responsibility to be in charge of you," he said in the video. "I am not better than you or more virtuous than you. If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God." Though at minimum a symbolic victory for Western counter-terrorism 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 Islamic State of Iraq.

 

 

After Syria's civil war erupted in 2011, al-Baghdadi set about pursuing a plan for a medieval-style Islamic State, or caliphate. He merged a group known as the Nusra Front, which initially welcomed moderate Sunni rebels who were part of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, with a new one known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Al-Qaeda's central leadership refused to accept the takeover and broke with al-Baghdadi.

Al-Baghdadi's fighters captured a contiguous stretch of territory across Iraq and Syria, including key cities, and in June 2014, it announced its own state - or caliphate. Al-Baghdadi became the declared caliph of the newly renamed Islamic State group. Under his leadership, the group became known for macabre massacres and beheadings -often posted online on militant websites - and a strict adherence to an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Over the years, he has been reported multiple times to have been killed, but none has been confirmed. In 2017, Russian officials said there was a "high probability" he had been killed in a Russian air strike on the outskirts of Raqqa, but US officials later said they believed he was still alive.

 

 

Syria Kurds expect IS revenge attacks after al-Baghdadi death

Syria's Kurdish forces said they expected revenge attacks by the Islamic State group following the US announcement Sunday that the jihadist organisation's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed.

"Sleeper cells will seek revenge for al-Baghdadi's death," Mazloum Abdi, the top commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces - the de facto army of the Kurdish administration that holds thousands of IS fighters in custody - told AFP.

"This is why anything is possible, including attacks on prisons," he said. The SDF, who were the US-led coalition's main partner on the ground in Syria during years of operations against IS, hold an estimated 12,000 IS suspects in a number of different facilities in northeastern Syria.

An SDF-led operation eliminated the last scrap of IS's self-proclaimed "caliphate" - which once covered vast territory in Syria and Iraq - in March.

The territorial defeat of the jihadist group did not however mean the death of the organisation or of its ideology.

Small units of fighters have since gone underground and continued to carry out guerrilla-style attacks in the region.

US President Donald Trump, who announced al-Baghdadi's death in a solemn address from the White House Sunday, had said last year that he intended to pull his troops from Syria.

US forces have indeed withdrawn from some areas in northern Syria, although they are remaining in regions of eastern Syria that include oil wells.

The vacuum created by the US redeployment and a subsequent operation launched by Turkey and its proxies against Kurdish forces has heightened fears of mass IS prison breaks.

Attacking prisons to free large numbers of senior operatives has been a signature tactic in resurgence drives by IS's earlier iterations.

Mr Trump thanked the Syrian Kurds "for certain support they were able to give us" in the operation against al-Baghdadi.

Mr Mazloum had said in an earlier post on social media that the operation against the IS supremo had resulted from joint intelligence work.

 

- Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.