Islamic State leader killed himself by igniting suicide vest, identified by DNA tests
WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump yesterday said that elusive Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed, dying “like a dog” in a daring, nighttime raid by US special forces deep in northwest Syria. Trump told the nation in a televised address from the White House that US forces killed a “large number” of Islamic State militants during the raid, which culminated with Baghdadi cornered in a tunnel, where he detonated a suicide vest.
“He ignited his vest, killing himself,” Trump said. “He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Trump said, adding that three of Baghdadi’s children also died in the blast.
Trump said that the raid – involving eight helicopters flying more than an hour from an undisclosed base – was accomplished with help or cooperation from Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. He also thanked the Syrian Kurds “for a certain support they were able to give us”. Special forces “executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style,” he said.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, described the dramatic message the president and his advisers received as they monitored the raid from the White House Situation Room. “The commander of the mission called and said, ‘100 percent confidence, Jackpot'” – meaning Baghdadi was dead – O’Brien said on NBC. “That was great news for us.”
At its height, Islamic State controlled swaths of Iraq and Syria in a self-declared state known as a caliphate, brutally imposing a puritanical version of Islam. The group planned or inspired terrorism attacks across Europe, while using social media to lure large numbers of foreign volunteers. It took years of war, in which Islamic State became notorious for mass executions and sickening hostage beheadings, before its final slice of territory in Syria was seized this March.
Baghdadi’s death provides a big political boost for Trump, who faces an impeachment inquiry and whose abrupt decision to withdraw a small but effective deployment of US forces from Syria raised fears that it would allow Islamic State remnants to regroup. Trump took a storm of criticism, including from his own Republican Party.
News of the raid, however, drew praise from several world leaders, coupled with caution that the IS threat may not be fully vanquished. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Twitter that it was “a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism”. He said Turkey would “continue to support anti-terror efforts – as it has done in the past”. “I am confident that a decisive struggle against terrorism, in line with the spirit of alliance, will bring peace to all of humanity,” he added in a second tweet.
The Turkish defense ministry said there was “information exchange and coordination between the military authorities of both countries” before the US operation, but gave no further details. A senior Turkish official also told AFP that there had been “close coordination” and Turkey’s military had “advance knowledge” of the raid.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the raid “an important moment in our fight against terror” but cautioned that the fight was “not yet over”. But Russia raised doubts about the death claim. “The defense ministry does not have reliable information… concerning the umpteenth ‘death’ of Baghdadi,” spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
Baghdadi’s death has been reported several times over the years. Trump said there was no doubt, however. While “there wasn’t much left” of Baghdadi, field testing of his DNA confirmed his identity, the president said. And Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN the raiding team had both visual and DNA confirmation Baghdadi was dead.
In Washington, Democrats commended the intelligence community and military professionals involved but cautioned that the IS threat was not over, particularly after Trump’s abrupt decision to pull most US troops out of Syria. House speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “the House must be briefed on this raid”, adding that “the Russians, but not top congressional leadership, were notified” in advance.
A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, had reported that US helicopters dropped forces in an area of Syria’s Idlib province where “groups linked to the Islamic State group” were present. The rights group, based in Britain but with a network of sources in Syria, said the helicopters targeted a home and a car outside the village of Barisha in Idlib province.
The operation killed nine people including an IS senior leader called Abu Yamaan as well as a child and two women, it said. An AFP correspondent in Barisha described the targeted house as having been flattened, with nothing but light gray rubble remaining. A resident in the area who gave his name as Abdel Hameed said he rushed to the site after hearing helicopters and gunfire 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.
From the outskirts of Barisha, an inhabitant of a camp for the displaced also heard what he described as helicopters and air strikes. They “were flying very low, causing great panic among the people,” Ahmed Hassawi said by phone. Though other jihadists operate in the area, it is nominally under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda affiliate that runs most of the Idlib enclave. The AFP correspondent said the Hayat group had cordoned off the area. Bulldozers could be seen yesterday clearing out the rubble.
Barisha is in a mountainous area less than five kilometers from Turkey and near a main border crossing. Turkey, which has been waging an offensive against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria, “knew we were going in”, Trump said. A senior Turkish official told AFP that “to the best of my knowledge, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi arrived at this location 48 hours prior to the raid.”
The commander-in-chief of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, said the operation came after “joint intelligence work” with American forces. Two US soldiers received minor injuries in the raid, Esper said. The only other US casualty was a military dog sent into the tunnel with the trapped Islamic State leader.
Baghdadi – an Iraqi native believed to be around 48 years old – was rarely seen. After 2014 he disappeared from sight, only surfacing in a video in April with an assault rifle at his side, as he encouraged followers to “take revenge” after the group’s territorial defeat. His reappearance was seen as a reassertion of his leadership of a group that – despite its March defeat – has spread from the Middle East to Asia and Africa and claimed several deadly attacks in Europe. The US State Department had posted a $25 million reward for information on his whereabouts. In September, the group released an audio message said to be from Baghdadi. – Agencies