27 October, 2019
By SJA Jafri
MELBOURNE/ WASHINGTON DAMASCUS: The leader of the Islamic State terror group, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, is believed to have died in a US raid in north-western Syria overnight, intelligence officials have claimed.
The raid followed a month-long intelligence operation that had tracked Baghdadi to the region through a smuggler who had moved the wives of two of his brothers from Iraq to Idlib, two officials told the Guardian.
Donald Trump is due to make an announcement at 9am (1pm GMT) on Sunday in Washington, having tweeted without explanation: “Something very big has just happened!”
Intelligence officials believe Baghdadi may have detonated a suicide belt as troops approached a house near the Turkish border in which he was hiding. The blast is thought to have also killed two of his wives.
Explosions and gunfire were reported from the small town of Barisha at about 1.30am Syrian time on Sunday. It is understood that the Isis leader had been tracked to the home of one his bodyguards who attempted to defend him. The raid is thought to have left at least nine people dead.
If confirmed, the death would be a devastating blow to a terror group that had run rampant across the region for five years from mid-2014, spawning gruesome terror attacks across the world, amplifying a mass refugee exodus and sparking a war to contain them that killed thousands of people and displaced millions more.
Throughout that time, Baghdadi remained the face of Isis: a fearsome implacable ideologue who eluded the world’s intelligence agencies while continuing to incite a war of civilisations.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported that a squadron of eight helicopters accompanied by a warplane belonging to the international coalition attacked positions of the Hurras al-Deen (an al-Qaida affiliated group) where Isis operatives were believed to be hiding in the Barisha area north of Idlib city.
Over the past month, the manhunt for Baghdadi intensified after Iraqi officials identified a Syrian man who had moved his family members and wives from Iraq to Syria. An Iraqi intelligence official said the wives of Baghdadi’s two brothers, Jumah and Ahmad, along with other family members, were monitored as they moved to the region. The information was passed to the CIA earlier this month, the officials say.
Telegram accounts linked to Isis were on Sunday offering prayers for Baghdadi, but not confirming his death. The terror group no longer controls territory in Syria or Iraq after a five-year war across much of both countries.
Several Syrian rebel groups active in Idlib province say they had been asked by US officials over the past fortnight to establish whether senior Isis members were hiding in Idlib.
Iran said it had been informed by Syrian sources that Baghdadi had been killed, two Iranian officials told Reuters on Sunday. “Iran was informed about Baghdadi’s death by Syrian officials who got it from the field,” one of the officials said.
“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 said.
On Saturday the White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said Trump planned to make a “major statement” on Sunday morning, but gave no further details. It was unclear what the topic of the president’s statement might be.
The region is mostly held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist group that opposes Isis and routinely executes people thought to be affiliated with the group. Though long speculated to be a possible hideout, Idlib had been thought by many regional officials to be too risky a proposition for Baghdadi who was more accustomed to the deserts of Iraq, where his organisation had risen.
The death of Baghdadi would be a significant fillip for Trump, who has faced withering criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for his troop withdrawal from north-eastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack the US’s Kurdish allies. He has also repeatedly insisted the US had defeated Isis – a claim denied by US generals and intelligence leaders.
Many critics of Trump’s Syria pullout have expressed worries that it would allow Isis to regain strength and pose a threat to US interests. An announcement about Baghdadi’s death could help blunt those concerns.
Baghdadi, who has $25m bounty on his head, 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-Qaida offshoot in Iraq.
On 16 September, 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.