The fugitive leader of the Islamic State (IS) group has been killed in a US military operation in northwest Syria, President Donald Trump has said.
Speaking from the White House, Mr Trump said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest after being caught at the end of a tunnel by special forces.
Baghdadi came to prominence in 2014, when he announced the creation of a “caliphate” in areas of Iraq and Syria.
IS carried out multiple atrocities that resulted in thousands of deaths.
The jihadist group imposed a brutal rule on almost eight million people in the areas under its control and was behind many attacks in cities around the world. The US declared the “caliphate” defeated earlier this year.
The killing of Baghdadi is a major victory for Mr Trump, who has been heavily criticised for his decision to pull US troops out of northern Syria earlier this month and is fighting an impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats.
In an unusual Sunday morning statement, Mr Trump said Baghdadi died after running into a dead-end tunnel in Idlib province, “whimpering, crying and screaming all the way”, as he was chased by US dogs.
Baghdadi was accompanied by three of his young children, Mr Trump said, and detonated his suicide vest, killing them all. The blast mutilated Baghdadi’s body but DNA tests confirmed his identity, the president added.
“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him,” Mr Trump said.
What is known about the operation?
The location in Idlib province was far from where Baghdadi had been thought to be hiding along the Syria-Iraq border. Many parts of Idlib are under the control of jihadists opposed to IS but rival groups are suspected of sheltering IS militants.
Baghdadi had been under surveillance for “a couple of weeks” and several other raids had been cancelled because of his movements, the president said, describing the location as a “compound”.
No US soldiers had been killed but a number of Baghdadi’s followers also died while others were captured, Mr Trump said, adding that “highly sensitive material and information” had been gathered.
A resident in Barisha, where the raid reportedly took place, told the BBC helicopters shot for 30 minutes late on Saturday, before troops became active on the ground. Helicopters fired at two houses, flattening one, he said.
Syrian Kurdish-led forces – one of the main US allies in northern Syria until President Trump withdrew US troops from the area this month – said they had carried out a “historic” joint operation.
Mr Trump praised them, as well as Russia, Iraq, Turkey and Syria for giving “certain support” to the operation.
Who was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
Baghdadi, whose real name was Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, had a reputation as a highly organised and ruthless battlefield tactician. He was described as the world’s most wanted man.
He was born near Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971, and reports suggest he was a cleric in a mosque in the city around the time of the US-led invasion in 2003.
Some believe he was already a jihadist during the rule of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Others suggest he was radicalised during the time he was held at Camp Bucca, a US facility in southern Iraq where many al-Qaeda commanders were detained.
Baghdadi emerged in 2010 as the leader of an umbrella group that included al-Qaeda in Iraq, and rose to prominence when IS militants captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, when he declared the creation of a “caliphate”.
That was the only time Baghdadi was seen in public. He reappeared in a video released by IS earlier this year.
In October 2011, the US officially designated him a “terrorist” and offered a reward of $ 10m (£5.8m at the time) for information leading to his capture or death. This was increased to $ 25m in 2017.
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