The fugitive leader of the Islamic State (IS) group killed himself during a US military operation in north-west Syria, President Donald Trump has said.
Speaking from the White House, Mr. Trump said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest after fleeing into a tunnel, chased by US military dogs.
Baghdadi came to prominence in 2014, when he announced the creation of a “caliphate” in areas of Iraq and Syria.
IS carried out multiple atrocities that resulted in thousands of deaths.
The jihadist group imposed a brutal rule in the areas under its control and was behind many attacks around the world. Although the US declared the “caliphate” defeated earlier this year, IS militants remain active in the region and elsewhere.
Baghdadi’s death is a major victory for Mr Trump as he faces heavy criticism for his decision to pull US troops out of northern Syria and fights an impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats.
- Who was Baghdadi?
- What Baghdadi’s death means for IS in Syria
- Where IS is still active around the world
In an unusual Sunday morning statement, Mr Trump said Baghdadi ran into a dead-end tunnel in Idlib province, “whimpering, crying and screaming”, while being chased by military dogs.
“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him,” he said.
Baghdadi, who was with three children, killed himself and all of them by detonating his vest, Mr. Trump said. The blast mutilated Baghdadi’s body but, according to the president, an on-site DNA test confirmed his identity.
No US personnel were killed, he said, but one of the dogs was injured.
What is known about the operation?
The location near the Turkish border was far from where Baghdadi had been thought to be hiding along the Syria-Iraq border. Many parts of Idlib are under the control of jihadists opposed to IS but rival groups are suspected of sheltering IS members.
Baghdadi had been under surveillance for “a couple of weeks” and “two or three” raids had been canceled because of his movements, Mr Trump said, describing the IS leader’s move to Idlib as part of a plan to rebuild the group.
The forces targeted the compound using eight helicopters, which were met with gunfire, Mr Trump said. The commandos entered the building by blowing holes in the wall, avoiding the main door which was booby-trapped.
When Baghdadi detonated his vest, the president said, the tunnel caved on him. “He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone… He died like a dog, he died like a coward.”