Daesh leader al-Baghdadi killed in US military raid, Trump says

Published 27.10.2019 10:03
Updated 29.10.2019 15:56
In this undated filer image grab taken from a video released by Al-Furqan media on April 29, 2019, the chief of Daesh terror group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears for the first time in 5 years in a propaganda video in an unknown location. (AFP Photo)
In this undated filer image grab taken from a video released by Al-Furqan media on April 29, 2019, the chief of Daesh terror group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears for the first time in 5 years in a propaganda video in an unknown location. (AFP Photo)

Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. military operation in Syria, President Donald Trump announced.

Trump said Sunday in a televised address to the nation from the White House's Diplomatic Room that "al-Baghdadi is dead" and the "number one terrorist leader" has been "brought to justice" following the "dangerous and daring" special operations mission. The U.S. president said he "got to watch much of" the raid, claiming no U.S. forces were lost in the operation "while a large number of Baghdadi's fighters and companions were killed with him." "He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way," said Trump.

As U.S. forces bore down on him, Trump said al-Baghdadi fled with three of his children 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."

Previous to the announcement, Trump teased, tweeting Saturday night that "Something very big has just happened!" A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, would say only that the president would be making a "major statement" on Sunday morning.

His body was mutilated, but on-site DNA tests confirmed al-Baghdadi's identity. Trump said lots of debris had to be removed due to the blast, but al-Baghdadi was identified 15 minutes after he was killed.

"It was him," Trump said. He added that no U.S. personnel were lost in the mission.

Trump said the U.S. military raid that took out al-Baghdadi is a bigger deal than the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden during the Obama administration. The president acknowledged that the death of bin Laden was significant, but said he believes the news about al-Baghdadi is even bigger news.

Trump said that bin Laden didn't become a global name in terrorism until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The president says that's in contrast to al-Baghdadi, who Trump says is responsible for building a "caliphate."

The U.S. president also thanked "the nations Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq" over their help with the operation. Commenting on Turkey's role in the raid, Trump said Turkey "was terrific," and knew U.S. forces "were moving in" on al-Baghdadi.

Answering a question whether Russia was informed of the raid, Trump said: "We told the Russians we're coming in. They said "thank you for telling us." They did not know why but we said "we think you're going to be very happy."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday welcomed the news of al-Baghdadi's death.

"Having paid the dearest price in the fight against Daesh, PKK/YPG, and other terrorist organizations, Turkey welcomes this development. I am confident that a decisive struggle against terrorism, in line with the spirit of alliance, will bring peace to all of humanity," he wrote on Twitter.

He said al-Baghdadi's killing "marks a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism."

"Turkey will continue to support anti-terror efforts — as it has done in the past," Erdoğan wrote.

It was claimed that the forces that took part in the raid departed from the Incirlik Air Base located in southern Turkey's Adana. "Prior to the U.S. Operation in Idlib Province of Syria last night, information exchange and coordination between the military authorities of both countries took place," the Turkish defense ministry said in a tweet, strengthening these claims.

However, U.S. sources later noted that the operation was launched from the al-Asad airbase in the Anbar province of Iraq, and the U.S. forces had rehearsed the raid in Irbil.

"The U.S. acted in accordance with the spirit of the alliance and strategic cooperation with Turkey in Idlib operation," the National Defense Ministry later said.

Underlining that U.S. and Turkish military officials coordinated and exchanged information prior to the operation on Saturday, the ministry said in a statement that Ankara warned its forces and "took timely measures to ensure operational and personnel security," on the basis of "interoperability and prevention of mutual interference with US elements."

"This is a very welcome development. It's a good day for the good guys," a senior Turkish official said on the condition of anonymity.

"Moving forward, Turkey will continue its cooperation with the United States and other allies to fight ISIS and all other terrorist groups," the source said, using an alternate acronym for the Daesh terrorist group.

"To the best of my knowledge, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi arrived at this location 48 hours prior to the raid. We have been in close coordination with the relevant parties."

"We do not comment on our intelligence community's interactions with their counterparts. I can neither confirm nor deny that any intelligence was shared to facilitate last night's operation," the official added.

Regarding the claims that the U.S. did not share information with Turkey, the official said: "The Turkish military did have advance knowledge of last night's raid. We will continue to coordinate our actions on the ground."

Fahrettin Altun, Turkish presidential communications director, said Ankara continues to work with its friends and allies against terrorism. "It's time to eliminate all the remaining terrorist leaders," Altun wrote.

"The fight against Daesh is a cornerstone of Turkey's counter-terror operations in Syria. We will continue to hunt down and bring to justice all Daesh terrorists, including those that the terrorist organization PKK/YPG released from prisons in recent weeks.," he added.

"We will cooperate with source countries to ensure the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters that joined Daesh," he indicated.

Trump's speech confirmed what Turkish officials have said as he thanked Turkey various times for its support in this operation. He said that Turkey "was terrific," and knew U.S. forces "were moving in" on al-Baghdadi. Trump's words were not surprising since Turkey has always been one of the main countries that has fought against Daesh. Turkish security forces have been involved in a long-running campaign to rid Turkey of Daesh terrorists. The terrorist group is blamed for a string of terror attacks in Turkey that killed dozens of people over the past three years in Istanbul and Ankara as well as cities in the southeast. Military operations in Syria and Iraq led to a rapid decline in Daesh territories and the number of its militants. Turkey helped the Syrian moderate opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), regain control of a number of Daesh-controlled towns in an operation in 2016. Foreigners looking to join Daesh in Syria have mostly attempted to use Turkey as their crossing point. Turkey has taken significant measures against foreign Daesh members and has urged Western countries for intelligence cooperation. According to official figures, 2,000 people were arrested and 7,000 others deported in operations against Daesh in Turkey, while around 70,000 people were denied entry to Turkey over their suspected links to the terrorist group. However, despite Trump's grateful attitude, the Pentagon expressed that they were expecting Trump to have thanked the PKK's Syrian affiliate the YPG more, to whom Trump did not give credit to.

A senior Iraqi security official told the AP that Iraqi intelligence played a part in the operation. Al-Baghdadi and his wife detonated explosive vests they were wearing during the U.S. commando operation, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the sensitive information and spoke on condition of anonymity. He added that other Daesh leaders were killed in the attack.

The operation's success could prove a major boost for Trump. The recent pullback of U.S. troops he ordered from northeastern Syria amid Turkey's Operation Peace Spring targeting PKK-linked People's Protection Units (YPG) 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. Despite NATO ally Ankara's security concerns and proposals to clear all terrorists from the region, an anti-Daesh coalition headed by the U.S. partnered with YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight against the terrorist group to the dismay of all local elements and regional powers.

"Turkey lost thousands of lives from the "safe zone" it was not a safe zone at all, and I'm happy I helped them get it," Trump said in remarks. "The (US military) pullout had nothing to with this. We found it (Baghdadi) around the same time."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syria war monitor, earlier reported an attack carried out by a squadron of eight helicopters accompanied by a warplane belonging to the international coalition on positions of the Hurras al-Deen, an al-Qaida-linked group, in the Barisha area north of Idlib city, after midnight on Saturday. Daesh operatives were believed to be hiding in the area, it said.

It said the helicopters targeted Daesh positions with heavy strikes for about 120 minutes, during which terrorists targeted the helicopters with heavy weapons. The Syrian Observatory documented the death of 9 people as a result of the coalition helicopter attack. It is not yet known whether al-Baghdadi is one of them, it said, adding that the death toll is likely to rise due to the presence of a large number of wounded.

Al-Baghdadi's presence in the village, a few kilometers from the Turkish border, would come as a surprise, even if some Daesh leaders are believed to have fled to Idlib after losing their last sliver of territory in Syria to U.S.-allied SDF in March. The surrounding areas are largely controlled by a Daesh rival, the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, although other terrorist groups sympathetic to Daesh operate there. Unverified video circulated online by Syrian groups appeared to support the Observatory claim that the operation occurred in Barisha. The intelligence source on the militant leader's whereabouts could not be immediately confirmed, but both Iraqi and SDF officials claimed a role.

The SDF appeared ready to portray al-Baghdadi's death as a joint victory for their faltering alliance with the U.S. The commander of the SDF and senior PKK terrorist sought by Turkey, Ferhad Abdi Şahin known as "Mazloum Abdi," tweeted: "Successful& historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America."

Al-Baghdadi has led Daesh for the last five years, presiding over its 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 Daesh 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 Daesh leaders supported smaller-scale acts of violence that would be harder for law enforcement to prepare for and prevent.

They encouraged terrorists 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 has been 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 Daesh 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 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."

Though at minimum a symbolic victory for Western counterterrorism efforts, his death would have unknown practical impact on possible future attacks. He had been largely regarded as a symbolic figurehead of the global terror network, and was described as "irrelevant for a long time" by a coalition spokesman in 2017.

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 Daesh-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 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.

Over the years, he has been reported multiple times to have been killed, but none has been confirmed. In 2017, Russian officials said there was a "high probability" he had been killed in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa, but U.S. officials later said they believed he was still alive.

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