The shadowy leader of so-called Islamic State, who presided over its global jihad and became arguably the world’s most wanted man, is dead after being targeted by a US military raid in Syria, President Donald Trump said.
“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” Mr Trump announced at the White House, saying the US had “brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice”.
Addressing the nation from the White House, the president described a daring airborne raid by American special operations forces in Syria’s north-western Idlib province and said they flew over heavily militarised territory controlled by multiple nations and forces.
No US troops were killed or injured in the raid, Mr Trump said.
As US forces bore down on al-Baghdadi, he fled into a “dead-end” tunnel with three of his children, Mr Trump said, and detonated a suicide vest.
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” the president said.
“He died like a dog, he died like a coward.”
Al-Baghdadi’s identity was positively confirmed by a DNA test conducted onsite, Mr Trump said.
Late on Saturday, he had teased a major announcement, tweeting: “Something very big has just happened!”
By the morning, he was thanking Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish fighters in Syria for their support.
The killing of al-Baghdadi marks a significant foreign policy success for Mr Trump, coming at one of the lowest points in his presidency as he is mired in impeachment proceedings and facing widespread Republican condemnation for his Syria policy.
The recent pullback of US troops he ordered from north-eastern Syria 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.
Mr Trump said the troop pullout “had nothing to do with this”.
Planning for the operation began two weeks ago, Mr Trump said, after the US gained unspecified intelligence on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts.
Eight military helicopters flew for more than an hour over territory controlled by Russian and Syrian forces, Mr Trump said, before landing under gunfire at the compound.
Mr Trump vividly described the raid and took extensive questions from reporters for more than 45 minutes.
He said US forces breached the walls of the building because the doors were booby-trapped and chased al-Baghdadi into the tunnel, which partially collapsed after al-Baghdadi detonated the suicide vest.
Mr Trump said a military dog was injured by the explosive blast.
He also revealed that US forces spent roughly two hours on the ground collecting intelligence.
Mr Trump said he watched the operation from the White House Situation Room as it played out live “as though you were watching a movie”.
He suggested he may order the release of the video so that the world knows al-Baghdadi did not die a hero and spent his final moments “crying”, “whimpering” and “screaming”.
Mr Trump said he teased the announcement as soon as American forces landed safely in a third country.
In his freewheeling appearance, Mr Trump suggested that the killing of al-Baghdadi was more significant than the 2011 operation ordered by his predecessor, Barack Obama, that killed al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Mr Trump later repeated a false claim that he predicted the threat posed by bin Laden in a book before the 2001 attacks.
He said the death of al-Baghdadi shows the United States will continue pursuing other terrorist leaders and that none should rest easy.
“These savage monsters will not escape their fate,” he said, and that the “losers” who worked for al-Baghdadi had “no idea what they were getting into”.
Kurdish forces appeared ready to portray al-Baghdadi’s death as a joint victory for their faltering alliance with the US, weeks after Mr Trump ordered American forces to withdraw from north-eastern Syria, all but abandoning Washington’s allies to a wide-ranging Turkish assault.
Al-Baghdadi had led IS for the last five years, presiding over its ascendancy as it cultivated a reputation for beheadings and attracted tens of thousands of followers to a sprawling and self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
He remained among the few IS 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 IS leaders supported smaller-scale acts of violence that would be harder for law enforcement to prepare for and prevent.