Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. military operation in Syria, sources in the region said on Sunday and U.S. President Donald Trump was due to make a “major statement” at the White House.
Baghdadi has long been sought by the United States, as head of a jihadist group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, declaring a caliphate. Islamic State has carried out atrocities against religious minorities and attacks on five continents in the name of a version of an ultra-fanatic Islam that horrified mainstream Muslims.
He was targeted in an overnight raid, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters, but could not say whether the operation was successful.
A U.S. official said later that the U.S. mission involved special operations forces and took place in Syria’s Idlib region.
Baghdadi has led IS since 2010, when it was still an underground offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq. In recent years Islamic State has lost most of its territory, although it is still viewed as a threat. Baghdadi has long been believed to be hiding somewhere along the Iraq-Syria border and the United States has offered a $25 million reward for his capture.
The raid in the early hours of Sunday involved helicopters, warplanes and ground clashes in the village of Barisha in Idlib province bordering Turkey, a commander of a militant faction in the region said.
The attacking U.S. forces removed the body of Baghdadi, and that of another man believed to be his deputy, the commander said. The bodies of three other men and three women were also found, he said.
The attack was carried out using eight helicopters, according to observers in the area, in addition to surveillance planes, the commander said.
Two Iraqi security sources and two Iranian officials said they had received confirmation from Syria that Baghdadi had been killed.
“Our sources from inside Syria have confirmed to the Iraqi intelligence team tasked with pursuing Baghdadi that he has been killed with his personal bodyguard in Idlib (province) after his hiding place was discovered when he tried to get his family out of Idlib towards the Turkish border,” one of the Iraqi officials said.