Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive ISIS leader whose terror group organized and inspired horrific attacks and murders around the world, has died.
Baghdadi was the target of a US military special operations raid in northern Syria, Newsweek first reported Saturday night.
"Something very big has just happened!" President Donald Trump tweeted earlier in the evening.
Trump then announced Baghdadi's death in an address Sunday morning.
US forces blasted their way into the compound, Trump said, killing people and accepting the surrender of adults and children inside.
The ISIS leader was cornered in a dead-end tunnel with three young children, then blew himself and the children up using a suicide vest, Trump said. Test results then confirmed the remains were his, Trump said.
"He was a sick and depraved man, and now he's gone," Trump said.
The US had Baghdadi under surveillance at the compound for several weeks, Trump said. No US personnel were killed in the operation, but they were met "with a lot of firepower," the president said.
The president spoke for almost an hour on Sunday, describing Baghdadi as a coward and naming some of the Americans who died under his regime, including journalist James Foley and aid worker Kayla Mueller. Trump also rambled about other terrorists and falsely took credit for identifying Osama bin Laden as a threat ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Trump said he watched the operation from the White House situation room with Vice President Mike Pence and senior military and intelligence advisers, saying it felt "as though you were watching a movie."
Baghdadi's death came as Trump pulled US troops from the Turkey–Syria border, leading to fears that the terror group could regain some strength after being significantly incapacitated.
Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, tweeted, "For five months there has been joint intel cooperation on the ground and accurate monitoring, until we achieved a joint operation to kill Abu Bakir al-Bagdadi." He also thanked Trump and the US Army.
Baghdadi declared a caliphate in June 2014. By late 2015 his terror group had reached the extent of its territorial control, holding large swaths of land from around Baghdad to Syria's border with Lebanon.
Under Baghdadi, ISIS earned a reputation for unconscionable brutality — including beheadings, terror attacks, kidnappings, and war crimes. The group placed captives in cages and slowly drowned or burned them to death; it pushed LGBTQ people off rooftops. It has uploaded some of these atrocities to social media in an effort to recruit extremists and religious zealots to its ranks and inspire similar attacks around the globe.
The death of Baghdadi — who is estimated to be about 47 or 48 years old — had been announced numerous times, though incorrectly, in the past. Last year, the US State Department offered a $25 million reward — raised from an initial $10 million — for information leading to his capture.
A scholar of Islamic law who claimed bloodlines tracing back to the Prophet Muhammad, Baghdadi took control of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq in May 2010. He oversaw the group's expansion into Syria as that country's civil war worsened, renaming his group in 2013 the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and breaking with al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, over their insistence that his forces return to Iraq.
What role Baghdadi maintained in the daily operations of ISIS in his final days is unknown. Baghdadi released a video message in April 2019 — before that, he had not been seen by the public for about five years but was heard in some audio recordings.
In the video, Baghdadi acknowledged the terror group had lost its grip on its final territorial stronghold, the village of Baghouz in Syria. Still, he vowed to fight on. “Our battle today is a war of attrition to harm the enemy, and they should know that jihad will continue until doomsday,” he said. In an audio recording released in September, his voice is heard trying to boost his terror group's morale, saying "efforts must be redoubled."
As the founder of the so-called ISIS caliphate, the symbolism of his death is likely to be bracing — and one that for the terror group could not come at a worse time as other key symbols of the caliphate have crumbled. Trump declared the end of the caliphate in March, even as troops were fighting for Baghouz at the time.
ISIS surged to international prominence in June 2014 when it launched an offensive across the Syrian border, seizing Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, then driving south almost to Baghdad. Three weeks later, on July 4, Baghdadi ascended the stairs to the minbar of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul and declared the caliphate, calling on Muslims from across the globe to help ISIS build its hardline proto-state.
That vision animated the group's supporters for years. Thousands crossed into ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq to fight, and the group's influence spread to Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.
In the weeks before Iraqi and American forced retook Mosul from ISIS, as Iraqi forces prepared to capture the Nuri mosque, ISIS detonated it, bringing the revered structure to the ground, and ensuring that no speech could be given from the same podium to counter Baghdadi's message of extremism and hate.
ISIS had destroyed more than two dozen priceless cultural heritage sites under Baghdadi, leveling mosques, temples, libraries, statues, and other structures with bulldozers, explosives, and hammers. It looted some historic sites to help fund its operations.
Baghdadi was captured by US forces during a 2004 house raid in Fallujah, Iraq. He went by a different name at the time and was considered to be a nobody — the operation had been targeting other militants.
He spent about five years in US-run detention camps, including Camp Bucca, where the New York Times reported he became more radicalized. He was released with several other prisoners who were reportedly considered "low-level."