Update: al-Baghdadi’s death has been confirmed.
In a fortuitously-timed development, US-led forces have killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The ISIS leader – who appeared on camera for the first time in years in April – is believed to be among the dead after a Saturday raid in northwest Syria.
Multiple defense officials have confirmed that al-Baghdadi is assumed dead, although as of midnight, the US was still gathering DNA for biometric testing.
At 9:23 on Saturday evening, Donald Trump appeared to preview the news. “Something very big has just happened!”, the president screamed, into the digital void (Trump is not your guy if you’re looking to plan a surprise birthday party for a mutual friend).
Newsweek first reported that Trump had signed off on the secret operation, which has apparently been in the planning stages for at least a week.
The location – in Idlib, according to reports – is interesting. Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been itching to mount a final assault aimed at ridding the province of jihadis once and for all. Idlib is the last major holdout in the nearly nine-year-old civili war and serves as the base of operations for a descendant of Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s former Syria arm.
Newsweek’s Pentagon sources said “there was a brief firefight when US forces entered the compound and that al-Baghdadi then killed himself by detonating a suicide vest”. Some family members were in the building, but no kids were harmed. Two of al-Baghdadi’s wives were killed.
US forces generally didn’t operate out of Idlib even before Trump withdrew American troops this month. The Sunni extremists operating in the area have been resilient in the face of pressure from Assad, Russia and Iranian-backed forces.
“Assad himself was seen on a rare visit to the frontlines of Idlib province in footage released Monday”, Newsweek notes, adding that “the Syrian leader told his troops ‘that the Idlib battle is the core to decisively end chaos and terrorism in all of Syria’ and vowed to defeat the array of rebel groups there while also teaming up with Kurdish-led forces against any Turkish-led attempts to push further into northern Syria”.
Over the past two weeks, Assad struck deals with both the Kurdish-led SDF (the US-allied fighters Trump abandoned this month) and, through Vladimir Putin, with Turkey. Putin’s deal with Recep Tayyip Erdogan amounts to Ankara recognizing Assad anew. When considered in conjunction with the deal Damascus struck to help protect the Kurds from any Turkish encroachment beyond Erdogan’s “safe”/”buffer” zone, the war in Syria is unofficially over. Assad is restored after nearly a decade.
Newsweek goes on to write that as “recent as February, Vice-Admiral Igor Kostyukov, head of the Russian general staff’s Main Intelligence Department, told the state-run Tass news agency that Baghdadi’s ‘whereabouts are unknown,’ but ‘he is definitely not in Idlib'”.
Maybe he wasn’t then, but he was on Saturday, according to Pentagon sources.
“Hundreds of ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq and northeastern Syria are believed to be hiding in the northwest, some even joining their former Qaeda rivals, so analysts said it is possible al-Baghdadi found refuge with them”, the New York Times wrote. “While it is unclear how al-Baghdadi ended up in Idlib, smuggling networks have been ferrying ISIS fighters and their family members out of northeastern Syria for several years as the group’s territory there dwindled”.
Trump will make an announcement at 9 a.m. on Sunday. Al-Baghdadi would be the highest profile terrorist leader killed since bin Laden.
A senior Turkish official who spoke to Western media outlets said Sunday that Ankara was notified in advance of the raid. That official said al-Baghdadi had been at the location for around 48 hours prior to the moment Delta Force moved in to eliminate him.
As noted above, the timing is good for the White House. Trump has come under relentless pressure this month following his ill-fated decision to green-light Turkey’s cross-border incursion, which left hundreds of America’s former Kurdish allies dead and displaced some 200,000 people.
Al-Baghdadi’s death would bolster Trump’s claims to being serious about ensuring ISIS doesn’t benefit from the chaos in northeast Syria, where the melee which accompanied Turkey’s military operation led directly to the escape of as many as 700 ISIS sympathizers.
On Friday, Mark Esper said Trump would keep several hundred US troops in eastern Syria to defend oil fields and ensure they don’t fall into the hands of a resurgent ISIS.
There had been a $25 million bounty on al-Baghdadi’s head. There was no word on whether Trump would try to claim that for himself.
Al-Baghdadi, you’ll note, has been killed at least four times that we can remember. This time, though, it seems as though he won’t be coming back.