Syria’s top Kurdish commander on Sunday hailed a “historic operation” and joint intelligence work following US media reports that Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed during an American raid.
Mazloum Abdi, head of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that was the US’s main local ally in years of battles against the Islamic State group in Syria, said the operation was the result of “joint intelligence work.”
Turkey’s Defense Ministry told the Reuters news agency that Turkish and American military authorities exchanged and coordinated information ahead of the US strike thought to have killed the elusive chief of the Islamic State terror group in the Idlib region of Syria.
Iraqi state television on Sunday broadcast footage of what it said was the site of the raid, with a crater and blood-stained clothing on the ground, Reuters reported. The broadcaster also quoted an terror expert who said Iraqi intelligence agencies had also helped to locate Baghdadi.
The White House announced US President Donald Trump would make a “major statement” Sunday at 9:00 a.m. (1300 GMT), without providing details.
A war monitor said US helicopters dropped forces in an area of Idlib where “groups linked to the Islamic State group” were present.
The helicopters targeted a home and a car outside the village of Barisha in an operation that killed nine people including an IS senior leader called Abu Yamaan as well as a child and two women, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It was not immediately clear if Baghdadi had been in the area, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
An AFP correspondent outside the village of Barisha in Idlib province saw what appeared to have been a minibus scorched to cinders by the side of the road.
A resident in the area who gave his name as Abdel Hameed said he rushed to the place of the attack after he heard helicopters, gunfire and strikes in the night.
“The home had collapsed and next to it there was a destroyed tent and vehicle. There were two people killed inside,” he told AFP.
US media cited multiple government sources as saying Baghdadi may have killed himself with a suicide vest as US special operations forces descended.
He was the target of the secretly planned operation that was approved by Trump, officials said according to US media.
The commander-in-chief of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces who have been fighting IS in Syria said the operation came after “joint intelligence work” with American forces.
“A historic operation is successful as a consequence of joint intelligence work with the United States of America,” Mazloum Abdi said on Twitter shortly after the news broke.
From the outskirts of Barisha, an inhabitant of a camp for the displaced also heard helicopters followed by what he described as coalition airstrikes.
They “were flying very low, causing great panic among the people,” Ahmed Hassawi told AFP by phone.
The AFP correspondent said the area of the nighttime strikes had been cordoned off by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate controlling Idlib.
Long pursued by the US-led coalition against IS, Baghdadi has been erroneously reported dead several times in recent years. In 2017, Russian officials said there was a “high probability” he had been killed in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa, but US officials later said they believed he was still alive.
US officials told ABC News that biometric work was under way to firm up the identification of those killed in the raid.
Two Iranian officials told the Reuters news agency that Tehran was informed by Syrian sources that Baghdadi had been killed.
Trump earlier tweeted, without explaining, “Something very big has just happened!”
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.
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.
But several offensives in both countries whittled down that territory, and in March the US-backed SDF ousted the extremist group from its last patch of territory in eastern Syria.
$25 million reward
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 this year with a wiry gray and red beard and an assault rifle at his side, as he encouraged followers to “take revenge” for IS members who had been killed.
His reappearance was seen as a reassertion of his leadership of a group that, while it had lost its physical territory, had spread from the Middle East to Asia and Africa and claimed several deadly attacks in Europe.
But Baghdadi remained on the run. The US State Department posted a $25 million reward for information on his whereabouts.
Under Baghdadi, the State Department said, IS “has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the Middle East, including the brutal murder of numerous civilian hostages from Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”
In September, the group released an audio message said to be from Baghdadi praising the operations of IS affiliates in other regions.
It also called on scattered IS fighters to regroup and try to free thousands of their comrades held in jails and camps by the SDF in northeastern Syria.
Idlib is controlled by former Al-Qaeda affiliate HTS, and includes the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters from the Hurras al-Deen group as well as IS cells, according to the Observatory.
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-US militant activity, he was detained by US forces in Iraq and sent to Bucca prison in February 2004, according to IS-affiliated websites.
He was released 10 months later, after which he joined the al-Qaeda 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, Baghdadi set about pursuing a plan for a medieval-style 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-Qaeda’s central leadership refused to accept the takeover and broke with Baghdadi.