Fugitive Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died “whimpering and crying” in a raid by US special forces in north-west Syria, President Donald Trump announced, fulfilling what he called his top national security goal.
Baghdadi, who led the jihadist group since 2010, killed himself by detonating a suicide vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel as US forces closed in, Trump said in a televised address from the White House.
He was positively identified by DNA 15 minutes later, the president said.
“He was a sick and depraved man and now he’s gone,” said Trump, adding capturing or killing Baghdadi had been his administration’s top national security priority.
Hours later, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said Islamic State spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, described as Baghdadi’s right-hand man, was killed in a separate raid by Kurdish-led and US forces in northern Syria.
The death of Baghdadi is a severe blow to Islamic State, in disarray and has no declared successor as leader yet. The group has in the past proved resilient, continuing to mount or inspire attacks despite losing territory.
Baghdadi had long been sought by the United States – which offered a $25 million reward for his capture – as leader of a jihadist group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, where it declared a caliphate.
Islamic State carried out atrocities against religious minorities and attacks on five continents in the name of an ultra-fanatic version of Islam that horrifies mainstream Muslims.
“Baghdadi’s death is a huge blow to the organisation’s capacity to swell its ranks, mobilise existing supporters and develop the momentum that could restore it to its past glories,” said Ranj Alaaldin, a fellow at Brookings Institution in Doha focused on Iraq.
“That said, ISIS (Islamic State) will still be a potent, underground terrorist threat.”
Trump said “many” of Baghdadi’s people were killed in the raid and added in blowing himself up, Baghdadi killed three of his children.
US forces suffered no personnel losses, he said. He thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq for support.
Turkey said it was proud to help “bring a notorious terrorist to justice”, but Russia’s response was sceptical, with the defence ministry in Moscow saying it had no reliable information on the raid and observing there were previous attempts to kill Baghdadi.
Trump said Baghdadi “reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him. He ignited his vest, killing himself and his three children”.
“He died … whimpering, crying and screaming.”
The raid comes after Trump announced withdrawal of US troops from north-eastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies as it sought to set up a “safe zone”.
The move drew criticism from fellow Republicans and Democrats, who expressed concerned at abandoning the Kurdish fighters instrumental in defeating Islamic State forces in Syria and that it might allow the group to regain strength and threaten US interests.
Trump said the raid would not change his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
The successful targeting of Baghdadi could help blunt those concerns, as well as boost Trump domestically when he faces an impeachment inquiry.
Regional allies welcomed the operation, with Turkey President Tayyip Erdogan saying it marked “a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praising an “impressive achievement”.
Some including French President Emmanuel Macron warned Islamic State was not finished. “Al-Baghdadi’s death is a blow, but it is just a stage,” he said. France’s interior minister called for increased vigilance in case of acts of revenge by extremists.
Long-time US foe Iran which accuses the US and allies of creating Islamic State was dismissive. Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, tweeted: “Not a big deal, You just killed your creature”.
Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashemi, an expert on jihadist groups, said Baghdadi’s death was likely to lead to a split in Islamic State.
“The split in is inevitable, it always happens when any radical religious group loses a charismatic leader,” he said.
Before Trump’s announcement, sources in the region described the raid on a compound in Barisha, Idlib province, in the early hours of Sunday.
Iraqi state television broadcast night-time footage of an explosion and daytime images of a crater and what it said was the aftermath of the raid, including torn and bloodstained clothes.
Iraq’s military said in a statement its intelligence services located Baghdadi’s whereabouts and passed the information to the US.
Trump said eight helicopters carried US Special Forces troops to the compound where Baghdadi was. They were met with gunfire before blasting their way in through to avoid a booby-trapped main door.
US forces spent around two hours in the compound, he said, adding they took “highly sensitive material and information”.
Russia “treated us great” by opening up airspace for the raid and Kurdish allies gave helpful information, according to Trump. The Russian defence ministry was not aware of any assistance to US forces.
The president said he watched the operation unfold in the Situation Room of the White House.
The military named the operation after US aid worker and hostage Kayla Mueller, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told NBC’s “Meet the Press”. In 2015, US officials told Reuters Mueller was repeatedly raped by Baghdadi before she died in Islamic State custody.
RELIEF FOR A GRIEVING FATHER
At the height of its power, Islamic State ruled millions in territory from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad.
Thousands of civilians were killed by the group as it mounted what the UN called a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi minority. It caused worldwide revulsion beheading foreign nationals from countries including the United States, Britain and Japan.
In one incident, referred to by Trump in his TV address, a captured Jordanian air force pilot was burned alive in a cage.
On Sunday the pilot’s father, Safi Al-Kasaesbeh, told Reuters TV he was relieved by news of Baghdadi’s death.
“I am proud and happy after hearing of the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, this corrupt man, this insect, this virus that spread throughout the body of not only the Arab nation but also the Muslim nation, who distorted the image of Muslims and Islam,” he said.
The group claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in cities including Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in nearby Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
In 2017 Islamic State lost control of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and thereafter almost all its territory, making Baghdadi a fugitive.