WASHINGTON | 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 announced at the White House, saying the U.S. had “brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice.”
Addressing the nation from the White House on Sunday morning, Trump described a daring airborne raid by American special operations forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and said they flew over heavily militarized territory controlled by multiple nations and forces. No U.S. troops were killed or injured in the raid, Trump said.
As U.S. forces bore down on al-Baghdadi, he fled into a “dead-end” tunnel with three of his children, Trump said, 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.” Al-Baghdadi’s identity was positively confirmed by a DNA test conducted onsite, Trump said.
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.
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 U.S. 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. Trump said the troop pullout “had nothing to do with this.”
Planning for the operation began two weeks ago, Trump said, after the U.S. gained unspecified intelligence on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. Eight military helicopters flew for more than an hour over territory controlled by Russian and Syrian forces, Trump said, before landing under gunfire at the compound.
Trump vividly described the raid and took extensive questions from reporters for more than 45 minutes Sunday. He said U.S. forces breached the walls of the building because the doors were booby-trapped and chased al-Baghdadi into the tunnel, which partially collapsed after al-Baghdadi detonated the suicide vest. Trump said a military dog was injured by the explosive blast. He also revealed that U.S. forces spent roughly two hours on the ground collecting intelligence.
Trump said he watched the operation from the White House Situation room as it played out live “as though you were watching a movie.” He suggested he may order the release of the video so that the world knows al-Baghdadi did not die of a hero and spent his final moments “crying, “whimpering” and “screaming.”
Trump said he teased the announcement as soon as American forces landed safely in a third-country.
In his freewheeling appearance Sunday, Trump suggested that the killing of al-Baghdadi was more significant than the 2011 operation ordered by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Trump later repeated a false claim that he predicted the threat posed by bin Laden in a book before the 2001 attacks.
Al-Baghdadi’s presence in the village, a few kilometers from the Turkish border, was surprising, even if some IS leaders are believed to have fled to Idlib after losing their last sliver of territory in Syria to U.S.-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.
Trump said the death of al-Baghdadi shows the United States will continue pursuing other terrorist leaders and that none should rest easy. “These savage monsters will not escape their fate,” he said and that the “losers” who worked for al-Baghdadi had “no idea what they were getting into.”
Kurdish forces appeared ready to portray al-Baghdadi’s death as a joint victory for their faltering alliance with the U.S., weeks after Trump ordered American forces to withdraw from northeastern Syria, all but abandoning Washington’s allies to a wide-ranging Turkish assault.
Al-Baghdadi had 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 U.S., 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 was 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.”
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-U.S. militant activity, he was detained by U.S. 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-Qaida 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-Qaida’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.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.