Speaking from the White House, Trump provided details of an extensive military raid conducted by U.S. forces at a compound in Idlib province, ending what he says was a years-long search for the ISIS leader.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice,” Trump said. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
Who was al-Baghdadi, how did the operation happen and what does this mean for ISIS?
Here’s what you need to know.
Who is Al-Baghdadi?
Described by Trump as a “brutal killer,” Al-Baghdadi had been the leader of ISIS for the last five years.
Born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq, he adopted the nom de guerre al-Baghdadi early on and joined the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion. He was detained by U.S. troops in February 2004 and spent 10 months in the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq.
He eventually assumed control of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda-linked group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in 2006. Under al-Baghdadi, the group expanded into neighbouring Syria, exploiting the chaos unleashed by that country’s 2011 uprising and civil war.
Al-Baghdadi presided over ISIS ascendancy as it cultivated a reputation for beheadings and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to a sprawling and self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. He remained among the few ISIS 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 ISIS leaders supported smaller-scale acts of violence that would be harder for law enforcement to prepare for and prevent.
In his statement on Sunday, Trump said al-Baghdadi spent his final moments “crying, whimpering” and “screaming.”
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward.”
Where did he die?
According to Trump, officials began planning the operation two weeks ago after the U.S. received “unspecified intelligence” that al-Baghdadi may be in the area.
While some ISIS leaders are believed to have fled to Idlib after losing their last remaining territory in Syria to U.S. and Kurdish forces in March, al-Baghdadi’s presence in the village, a few kilometres from the Turkish border, was surprising.
The surrounding areas are largely controlled by an ISIS rival, the al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, although other jihadi groups sympathetic to ISIS operate there.
Speaking on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence said that he and Trump had been informed on Thursday afternoon that there was a “high probability” al-Baghdadi would be at the compound in Idlib.
“The president immediately directed our commanders to develop military options,” Pence said.
He said those options were presented to the president at the White House on Friday morning, but it wasn’t until Saturday morning that they received “actionable intelligence,” allowing the operation to begin.
In a tweet posted after the announcement, the government of Iraq claimed it was its national intelligence service that was able to “accurately pinpoint the hideout” of al-Baghdadi.
“Subsequently, US forces, in coordination with Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, carried out an operation which led to the elimination of terrorist Al-Baghdadi,” the tweet reads.
Trump said eight helicopters flew over Syria’s northwestern Idlib province in a heavily militarized territory held by Russian and Syrian forces.
It is there, Trump said, that an airborne raid began.
A U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the operation was staged from an airbase in western Iraq.
How did it happen?
According to Trump, U.S. military personnel breached the compound’s booby-trapped walls, killing “many” ISIS fighters and companions of al-Baghdadi.
Trump said he watched the raid — which lasted approximately two hours — in real-time from the situation room in the White House.
He said it was “as though you were watching a movie.”
According to Trump, al-Baghdadi was backed into a dead-end tunnel by U.S. troops and dogs.
It was then, Trump said, that he “ignited” a suicide vest he had been wearing, killing himself and three of his children.
Trump said that while al-Baghdadi’s body was “mutilated” by the blast and the collapse of the tunnel, DNA tests conducted at the compound resulted in “certain, immediate and totally positive” identification.
“It was him,” Trump said.
During his statement, Trump thanked Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and the Syrian Kurdish forces, who he says offered assistance in the operation.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the goal of the operation had been to capture al-Baghdadi if possible but kill him if necessary.
According to Trump, finding him was a top national security priority for his administration.
Esper said two U.S. forces suffered minor injuries as a result of the operation but have already returned to duty.
Trump confirmed that no U.S. personnel were lost during the raid, but said a military dog had been wounded in the blast.
Eleven other children were removed from the compound “unharmed,” Trump said.
How has the international community reacted?
As Trump broke the news of al-Baghdadi’s death, a number of world leaders reacted.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Sunday evening that al-Baghdadi’s death marks a “major step in the fight against Daesh.”
“Canada will continue to work with our partners to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh, including through the Global Coalition, Operation IMPACT and the NATO training mission in Iraq.”
In a tweet Sunday morning, Mazloum Abdi, general commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was quick to say the operation was a joint effort.
“Successful& historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America,” he wrote.
Abdi continued, saying there had been co-operation on the ground for five months.
“For five months there has been joint intel cooperation on the ground and accurate monitoring,” he wrote. “Until we achieved a joint operation to kill Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi.”
He said co-operation in monitoring and targeting ISIS leaders is “going strongly,” and that “soon there will other effective operations.”
In a tweet, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the news an “important moment” in the fight against terror.
“But the battle against the evil of Daesh is not yet over,” he wrote. “We will work with our coalition partners to bring an end to the murderous, barbaric activities of Daesh once and for all.”
In a statement to Reuters, Fahrettin Altun, a senior aide to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, said Turkey was “proud to help the United States, our NATO ally, bring a notorious terrorist to justice.”
“We remember today Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s civilian victims and our military heroes, who lost their lives to protect the world from Daesh terrorists,” he said.
Altun said Turkey will continue to work closely with the United States to “combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations.”
“It is time to join forces and defeat all terrorist groups operating in the region without further delay,” he said.
French defence minister Florence Parly on Twitter congratulated the U.S. military.
“Baghdadi: early retirement for a terrorist, but not for his organization,” he wrote. “I congratulate our American allies with this operation. My thoughts today are for all the victims of the madness of Baghdadi and the criminals who have followed him.”
Other leaders were less congratulatory.
“Not a big deal! You just killed your creature,” Iran’s information minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi tweeted, accusing the U.S. of creating the Islamic State group.
In Russia, Major-General Igor Konashenkov questioned Trump’s announcement.
“The Russian Ministry of Defence does not have reliable information on the operation by U.S. servicemen… on yet another ‘elimination’ of former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” he told RIA news agency.
Similarly, Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of Turkey’s upper house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee told Interfax news agency that “last respects have been paid to al-Baghdadi at least five times in the past,” adding that countering terrorism is a “much more difficult task than the physical destruction of its leaders. Even the most irreconcilable.”
What happens next?
Al-Baghdadi never publicly designated a successor, and many of his top deputies have been killed. His death could spark infighting among prospective successors, potentially further weakening the group.
In an email to Global News, Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor at Queen’s University who studies terrorism and social movements, said ISIS will now have to focus on a succession plan and will “have to ramp up propaganda efforts to help supporters navigate through this loss.”
However, ISIS has survived the death of several leaders and senior commanders.
The group still boasts powerful affiliates in other countries, and remnants of the original group continue to carry out sporadic attacks in both Syria and Iraq.
What’s more, after the U.S. pulled its troops from northern Syria this month, hundreds of detained ISIS fighters were able to escape after Kurdish guards were drawn from their posts to defend against a Turkish offensive.
Trump says the operation had nothing to do with his move to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria, and that his decision stands.
-With files from The Associated Press and Reuters
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