Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. military operation in Syria, sources in the region said on Sunday and U.S. President Donald Trump was due to make a “major statement” at the White House.
Baghdadi has long been sought by the United States, as head of a jihadist 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 in the name of a version of an ultra-fanatic Islam that horrified mainstream Muslims.
He was targeted in an overnight raid, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters, but could not say whether the operation was successful.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The notorious Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Baghdadi has led IS since 2010, when it was still an underground offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq. In recent years Islamic State has lost most of its territory, although it is still viewed as a threat. Baghdadi has 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 Syria’s Idlib province bordering Turkey, a commander of a militant faction in the region 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 Baghdadi had been killed.
Information about the raid
“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 blood-stained clothes.
Iraqi intelligence agencies had helped pinpoint 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.
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 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.
US – Turkey coordination
Turkish and U.S. military authorities exchanged and coordinated information ahead of an attack in Idlib, Turkey’s Defence 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 Baghdadi was dead.
Trump gave an indication that something was afoot when he tweeted without explanation, “Something very big has just happened!”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley announced that Trump would make a “major statement” at 9 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) on Sunday. Gidley gave no further details.