The US military conducted an operation against elusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Saturday, a US official said, as US President Donald Trump prepared to make a “major statement” at the White House on Sunday morning.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was unable to say whether the operation against Baghdadi was successful.
Newsweek said it had been told by a US Army official briefed on the raid that Baghdadi was dead. It said the operation took place in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, and was carried out by special operations forces after receiving actionable intelligence.
The official, speaking to Reuters, did not disclose details of the operation and other US officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Iraqi state television later aired footage of what it said was the US raid that killed Baghdadi.
Day-time footage showed a crater in the ground and what appeared to be the aftermath of a raid, with torn blood-stained clothes on the ground. It also showed night-time footage of an explosion.
The broadcaster quoted an expert on terrorism saying that Iraqi intelligence agencies had helped pinpoint Baghdadi’s location.
Two Iraqi security sources and two Iranian officials said they had received confirmation from inside Syria that Baghdadi had been killed.
The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Sunday a “successful operation” resulted from joint intelligence work with the US, in an apparent reference to the American raid.
“An historic, successful operation as a result of joint intelligence work with the United States of America,” Mazloum Abdi said on Twitter.
Trump gave an indication that something was afoot earlier on Saturday night when he tweeted without explanation, “Something very big has just happened!”
Trump has been frustrated by the US news media’s heavy focus on the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, which he calls an illegitimate witch hunt.
He has also 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.
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 Sept. 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 United States and its proxies had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the United States had been “dragged” into Mali and Niger.
At the height of its power, ISIS ruled over 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 his self-titled “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.