Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant group Isis, was killed on Saturday in a US special forces raid in north-western Syria, President Donald Trump announced from the White House on Sunday.
“The United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice,” Mr Trump said at a televised press conference. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
The killing of the militant leader, who for years unleashed terror across Syria, Iraq and further afield, came just weeks after Mr Trump faced bipartisan criticism for withdrawing US forces from north-east Syria and allowing Turkey to invade.
Opponents of the pullout say it betrayed the Syrian Kurds who had been US allies in the fight against Isis and that it could allow the jihadi group to surge back after its defeat and expulsion from most of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq.
Mr Trump said Baghdadi was the target of a commando operation in Idlib province, which borders Turkey in north-west Syria. Though analysts had viewed the area as too hostile for the Isis leader, Mr Trump said he had been attempting to rebuild the terror group from there. Idlib is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda linked group that has previously clashed with Isis.
The US president said the operations had been weeks in the planning and said the Isis leader was killed after trying to flee US forces in a tunnel “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way”.
Baghdadi, accompanied by three children, detonated a suicide vest, Mr Trump said, adding that no US personnel, other than a dog, were injured.
“His body was mutilated by the blast,” said the US president. “The tunnel had caved in on it, in addition.”
Baghdadi has topped the list of most-wanted terrorists for years and has been the subject of manhunts by US intelligence and other international security agencies.
Isis, which captured a third of Iraq and a huge swath of Syria in a lightning sweep in 2014, set up what it called an Islamic state in an attempt to revive the Caliphate of the early days of Islam.
Over the years, there had been numerous, ultimately false, reports that Baghdadi had been killed or severely injured. Mr Trump said “test results gave certain immediate and totally positive identification. It was him”.
Isis imposed its harsh and often murderous rule on local populations and attracted thousands of foreign fighters from numerous countries in the Arab region, Europe and America, lured by the appeal of resurgent Islam conquering the world and going back to its purist roots.
Over the years the group has been accused of a long list of atrocities including suicide bombings, beheadings, rapes and enslavement of women.
Mr Trump suggested that video of Baghdadi’s death should be released to serve as a message to people tempted to join the terrorist group. “They should see how he died. He didn’t die a hero, he died a coward,” said Mr Trump.
The operation on Saturday came after US forces had been surveilling Baghdadi for weeks, Mr Trump said, adding that two or three missions had been cancelled after the Isis leader, known for taking extreme security precautions including not using a cell phone for years, had changed his plans at the last minute.
Baghdadi’s compound had tunnels leading from it, though all but one were dead ends, Mr Trump said, adding that US forces had blown holes in the walls of the compound to gain entry because the main entrances were booby-trapped.
Eight helicopters participated in the raid, flying low for more than an hour over dangerous territory, some of it controlled by Russian forces, said Mr Trump. He said the helicopters were met with “local gunfire” going in, that was “immediately terminated”.
“Russia treated us great, they opened up, we had to fly over certain Russia-held areas,” said Mr Trump. US forces had also flown over Turkish territory with permission, he added. He also thanked Syria, Iraq and the Syrian Kurds who “gave us some info that turned out to be helpful”.
On Sunday morning, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces posted a tweet about a “successful and historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America”.
Turkey’s defence minister said in a tweet that “information exchange and co-ordination between the military authorities of both countries took place” before to the US operation in Idlib.
“The Turkish military did have advance knowledge of last night’s raid. We will continue to co-ordinate our actions on the ground,” said a senior Turkish official, without elaborating on the nature of the co-ordination, citing rules on commenting on intelligence-sharing.
Mr Trump on Saturday posted a tweet saying that “something very big has just happened”, without elaborating. He said on Sunday the tweet had been posted after US forces had completed the mission and landed safely in a friendly country, which he did not name.
Mr Trump said information about the mission had been kept to a small group of officials within the US government. Democratic congressional leaders were not briefed in advance, he said.
Mr Trump watched the operation from the White House’s situation room, he said, just as Barack Obama in 2011 had watched the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader.
Mr Trump said US forces were in the compound for approximately two hours and retrieved “highly sensitive material” about the origins of Isis and its future plans.
The US president used the occasion to evoke the might of the US military: “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.”
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley