US kills ‘high-valued’ target believed to be ISIS leader Baghdadi: Reports

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The US military has killed a “high-valued target” in Syria believed to be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Newsweek and Fox News reported on Sunday citing a top US Army official.

Citing sources familiar with the operation, Newsweek reported that members of the Joint Special Operations Command received “actionable intelligence,” which led them to carry out a special operations raid targeting the ISIS leader in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek that the compound where al-Baghdadi was located in the Barisha village in Syria's Idlib was taken out with an airstrike. Turkey, a NATO ally backing local insurgents, was not notified prior to the operation, the official added.

The state Iraqi News Agency cited security sources as saying that eight US helicopters targeted al-Baghdadi's hideout early Sunday.

CNN cited a US defense official as saying that al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest during the raid. They also reported that the final confirmation as to whether al-Baghdadi was actually targeted is pending while DNA and biometric testing is conducted.

Two of al-Baghdadi’s wives were also killed during the US raid after detonating their own explosive vests, Newsweek reported citing Pentagon sources.

President Donald Trump reportedly approved the operation nearly a week before it took place.

Meanwhile, Reuters on Sunday cited two Iranian officials as saying that Iran was informed by sources in Syria that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed.

“Iran was informed about Baghdadi’s death by Syrian officials who got it from the field,” one of the officials told Reuters. The second Iranian official confirmed it.

Reuters also reported that Iraq was informed by sources in Syria that the ISIS leader was killed, citing two Iraqi security sources.

“Our sources from inside Syria have confirmed to the Iraqi intelligence team tasked with pursuing Baghdadi that he has been killed alongside his personal bodyguard in Idlib after his hiding place was discovered when he tried to get his family out of Idlib towards the Turkish border,” one of the sources told the news agency.

On Saturday, Trump had tweeted without further explanation, “Something very big has just happened!”

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley had said late on Saturday that Trump plans to make a “major statement” at the White House at 9 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) on Sunday.

Later on Sunday, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Commander Mazloum Abdi tweeted, “Successful, historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States” in apparent reference to reports of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi's death.

Mazloum also stated that they have carried out intelligence work on the ground for five months prior to killing al-Baghdadi.

"There has been intelligence work on the ground for five months, and a thorough pursuit until terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was eliminated through this joint operation. We thank everyone who contributed to this great work," Mazloum tweeted.

With a $25 million US bounty on his head, al-Baghdadi is the world’s most wanted man, responsible for steering his chillingly violent organization into mass slaughter of opponents and directing and inspiring terror attacks across continents and in the heart of Europe.

ISIS was defeated in Iraq in 2017, while in Syria, it lost its last territory in March, marking the end of the terrorists’ self-declared caliphate.

Despite these battlefield defeats, ISIS sleeper cells have continued to launch attacks in both Iraq and Syria.

Last April, a propaganda video released by the extremist group’s al-Furqan media network showed a bearded man purporting to be al-Baghdadi sitting cross-legged on the floor, and giving an 18-minute address. This would have been the first appearance of al-Baghdadi since 2014, when he spoke at the Great Mosque in Mosul.

In the video, al-Baghdadi referred in the past tense to the months-long fight for Baghouz at the time, ISIS’s final bastion in eastern Syria.

ISIS in Syria

Trump has faced withering criticism from both Republicans and Democrats alike for his US troop withdrawal from northeastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies.

Many critics of Trump’s Syria pullout have expressed worries that it would lead the ISIS militancy to regain strength and pose a threat to US interests. An announcement about Baghdadi’s death could help blunt those concerns.

Trump was expected to make the statement in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, which he has used to make a number of major announcements.

Just last week he used the same room to announce that a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds had taken hold.

For days, US officials had feared that ISIS would seek to capitalize on the upheaval in Syria. But they also saw a potential opportunity, in which ISIS leaders might break from more secretive routines to communicate with operatives, potentially creating a chance for the US and its allies to detect them.

Baghdadi was long thought to hiding somewhere along the Iraq-Syria border. He has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.

On September 16, ISIS’s media network issued a 30-minute audio message purporting to come from Baghdadi, in which he said operations were taking place daily and called on supporters to free women jailed in camps in Iraq and Syria over their alleged links to his group.

In the audio message, Baghdadi also said the US and its proxies had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the US had been “dragged” into Mali and Niger.

At the height of its power ISIS ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

But the fall in 2017 of Mosul and Raqqa, its strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively, stripped Baghdadi, an Iraqi, of the trappings of a caliph and turned him into a fugitive thought to be moving along the desert border between Iraq and Syria.

US air strikes killed most of his top lieutenants, and before ISIS published a video message of Baghdadi in April there had been conflicting reports over whether he was alive.

Despite losing its last significant territory, ISIS is believed to have sleeper cells around the world, and some fighters operate from the shadows in Syria’s desert and Iraq’s cities.

Turkey, Iraq claim they were involved

Turkey on Sunday said there was “coordination” between Ankara and Washington before the operation which US media reports said targeted and killed ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“Prior to the US 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.

It did not give details.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi arrived at the location in Syria where he was reportedly killed early on Sunday in a US raid some 48 hours before the operation, a senior Turkish official said.

The Turkish army had advance knowledge of the US operation in Syria’s Idlib, the official said, adding that Turkey would continue to coordinate its actions on the ground with the “relevant parties.”

Iraqi intelligence learned al-Baghdadi’s location and passed it on to the US after arresting an Iraqi man and woman from al-Baghdadi’s inner circle, an Iraqi intelligence official claimed on Sunday.

The detainees gave “valuable information” which led to a secret location in the Iraqi desert containing documents with al-Baghdadi’s location and movements, added the official.

- With Agencies

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