NEWS
28/10/2019 7:54 AM AEDT

ISIS Leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Killed During US Military Operation, Trump Says

"He died like a dog," President Trump said during a news conference announcing the extremist leader's death.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-described Islamic State, was killed during a US military operation in northwestern Syria, President Donald Trump announced during a press conference Sunday.

“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” Trump began. “He was the founder and leader of ISIS ― the most ruthless and violent terror organisation anywhere in the world.”

According to the president, US special operations forces conducted the nighttime raid and “accomplished their mission in grand style.” American military dogs chased Baghdadi to the end of a tunnel, where he was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Trump said.

As U.S. forces closed in on him, Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his young children, Trump said.

“He died like a dog,” he said. “He died like a coward.”

The president said U.S. forces conducted a DNA test to determine Baghdadi was killed during the operation.

“They have his DNA — more of it than they even want,” he said. “They did an onsite test. They had samples. ... It was positive.”

Trump said many ISIS fighters were killed but no US personnel suffered injuries in the operation ― save for one military dog that followed Baghdadi into the tunnel and was wounded. 

Defence Secretary Mark Esper later corrected the president’s remarks, saying two US soldiers had also suffered minor injuries in the raid. “They’ve already returned to duty,” Esper said of the injured Americans, according to CNN.

Speculation had been rife in the hours leading up to Trump’s announcement as to whether Baghdadi, who’d been in hiding for the last five years, had been killed in the US assault.

Trump appeared to hint at the news in a cryptic tweet, saying on Saturday night without elaboration that “something very big just happened.”

Of his tweet, Trump ― who watched the operation unfold from the Situation Room ― said Sunday that he “sent that right after I knew” US troops had “landed safely” in a “very friendly” country after the raid. 

Trump said he informed some Republican members of Congress on Sunday morning about Baghdadi’s death, but acknowledged that he did not alert congressional leadership of the planned raid ahead of its execution. 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff applauded Baghdadi’s demise, calling him a “bloodthirsty killer,” but said Trump made a “mistake” by not giving him and the rest of the “Gang of Eight” ― a bipartisan group of congressional leaders ― a heads-up beforehand.

“Had something gone wrong, had we gotten into a firefight with the Russians, it’s to the administration’s advantage to say we informed Congress,” Schiff said during an interview Sunday with ABC’s “This Week.”

He said then-President Barack Obama had notified the Gang of Eight ahead of the US operation that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

As the leader of ISIS since 2010, Baghdadi oversaw the group’s expansion from an extremist cell under the umbrella of al Qaeda into a sprawling international terror organization. 

ISIS took over large parts of Iraq and Syria under Baghdadi’s leadership, and claimed numerous deadly terror attacks across the world. But in recent years ISIS has essentially gone back underground after losing nearly all the territory it seized. Much of its core leadership has been captured or killed, and it no longer occupies any major cities.

Baghdadi’s death is a major blow to the group and leaves no obvious immediate successor. 

Reuters TV / Reuters
A bearded man believed to be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaks in a screengrab taken from a video released on April 29, 2019.

On Sunday, Trump thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq for helping the US in the mission to take down Baghdadi, who he said had been under US surveillance for a couple of weeks.  

He also expressed gratitude to Syrian Kurds, who he said had provided “some information that turned out to be helpful.” Trump recently drew bipartisan backlash for abruptly withdrawing American forces from northern Syria, essentially abandoning the US-allied Kurdish forces as Turkey launched a military offensive against them.

An Iraqi intelligence official told Reuters on Sunday that Iraq’s intelligence service had provided the US with the exact coordinates of Baghdadi’s location. 

Though Trump said Iraq had been “excellent” in its cooperation with the US, he claimed “we got very little help” overall.

“We had our own intel,” he said. “We got very little help. We didn’t need much help.”

But two US officials told The New York Times that Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence officials worked closely with the CIA to determine Baghdadi’s precise location. They praised the Kurds for continuing to provide information to the U.S., despite Trump’s widely condemned decision to pull American troops from northern Syria.

By suddenly withdrawing US troops from the region, Trump disrupted planning for the raid and pushed military officials to move forward with the operation sooner than originally expected, the Times reported.

Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al Badriin in the Iraqi city of Samarra, 77 miles north of Baghdad, in 1971.

Baghdadi pursued Quranic studies in the late 1990s while obtaining his master’s degree at Baghdad’s Saddam University. He also developed an interest in Islamist extremist ideology.

During the Iraq War in 2004, authorities arrested Baghdadi over his ties to anti-government insurgents and held him at Camp Bucca detention center in Iraq. The US-controlled facility held many extremists, including a group that would form al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to ISIS.

In the months after his December 2004 release, Baghdadi became involved in al Qaeda in Iraq and became a leading religious figure within the group ― he obtained a doctorate in Quranic studies in 2007 to bolster his credentials.

Baghdadi assumed leadership of the militant organisation now known as ISIS in May 2010, after a US airstrike killed the group’s former leaders Abu Ayyub al Masri and Abu Umar. The organisation’s leadership council, made up of longtime al Qaeda militants and former Saddam Hussein loyalists, formally elected Baghdadi as its emir soon after. 

When Baghdadi took over as leader, the militant group was almost solely based in Iraq and much of its senior leadership had recently been killed in counterterrorism operations. But the onset of the Syrian civil war allowed the group to grow and capitalise on the chaos. Baghdadi expanded the organisation into Syria, where it metastasised.

STRINGER Iraq/Reuters
A member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant holds an ISIL flag and a weapon in the city of Mosul on June 23, 2014.

Although ISIS officially existed under al Qaeda during this period, Baghdadi’s tactics differed from those of his parent organization’s leaders. Baghdadi’s fighters targeted other Sunni militant groups and focused on violently asserting control over territory in Syria, leading to a public spat between ISIS and al Qaeda.

Baghdadi’s refusal to come to heel over Syria led al Qaeda to formally split from ISIS in early 2014. In the aftermath, ISIS quickly came to the attention of international media after it made large gains in Iraq and Syria. The group earned more publicity after releasing widely seen propaganda videos showing beheadings of prisoners, including U.S. citizens. 

After its rapid advance on Mosul, ISIS declared in June 2014 that it had established its so-called “caliphate” and would be calling itself the Islamic State. 

As Baghdadi helped facilitate ISIS’s rise, he also authorized and took part in its atrocities. Slavery, rape, beheadings and numerous crimes against humanity routinely took place under his command. The widespread torture and sexual slavery of Yazidi women was officially condoned in ISIS’s doctrine and advocated in its propaganda. Baghdadi personally sexually abused Yazidi girls, according to women who managed to escape from Islamic State captivity.

Under Baghdadi’s rule, ISIS and its affiliates also began carrying out a number of deadly terror attacks around the world. The group targeted civilians in bombings and shootings, and called on supporters to commit their own attacks without direct assistance.

As the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS ramped up after the summer of 2014, Baghdadi disappeared from public view. After he went underground, there were frequent reports of his death or injury in airstrikes. Many senior ISIS leaders, including second-in-command Abu Muhammad al Adnani, were killed in strikes during this time as the group lost its occupied territory.

ISIS allegedly began making preparations as early as mid-2015 for Baghdadi’s eventual demise, passing leadership authority and military decisions to other commanders within the group, intelligence officials told The New York Times.

It’s still unclear who will take over for Baghdadi as leader and what tangible effect this will have on ISIS’s capabilities. 

On Sunday, Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander,  told ABC News that while the death of Baghdadi certainly marked a “very good day,” he warned that “unfortunately, this is not the end of the Islamic State.”

“I don’t see a lot that’s going to suddenly change here,” he said.

Still, the family members of ISIS victims expressed relief that Baghdadi had been toppled at long last.

The mother of James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by ISIS in 2014, thanked Trump and U.S. forces for finding Baghdadi. 

“I hope this will hinder the resurgence of terror groups and pray that captured ISIS fighters will be brought to trial and held accountable,” Diane Foley said in a statement.

This story has been updated with Trump’s announcement of Baghdadi’s death, comments from Schiff, and background about Baghdadi.

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