The United States has carried out an operation targeting Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL or ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told news agencies.
A US official told The Associated Press that the ISIL leader was targeted in Syria’s Idlib province. Another US official confirmed to Reuters news agency that the operation took place but did not disclose details and did not say whether it was successful.
Newsweek, citing a US Army official briefed on the result of the operation, said al-Baghdadi was killed in the raid.
US President Donald Trump plans to make a “major statement” at the White House at 9 am EST (1300 GMT) on Sunday, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Saturday.
Earlier, Trump tweeted: “Something very big has just happened!”
The US raid was carried out in Barisha, a small village in northwestern Syria near the border with Turkey, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a war monitor.
Al Jazeera’s Alaa Eddine Youssef, reporting from Barisha, said eight US helicopters took part in the operation which lasted for about 90 minutes.
“Search-and-rescue teams are still in the area in an attempt to find out what happened,” he said.
“Many were killed and injured, many vehicles were also destroyed. No cameras are allowed in until all the search and investigation efforts are completed.”
— T.C. Millî Savunma Bakanlığı (@tcsavunma) October 27, 2019
On Sunday, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said a “successful operation” resulted from joint intelligence work with the US, in an apparent reference to the reports surrounding al-Baghdadi.
“An historic, successful operation as a result of joint intelligence work with the United States of America,” Mazloum Abdi said on Twitter.
Turkey’s defence ministry said that Turkish and US military authorities exchanged and coordinated information ahead of the attack.
“Prior to the US operation in Idlib province of Syria last night, information exchange and coordination between the military authorities of both countries took place,” the ministry said on Twitter later on Sunday.
Last audio message?
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Baghdad, said a lot of people would be relieved to hear of al-Baghdadi’s death, if true.
“Analysts say the death will have a significant impact on the group. It will possibly weaken the group and, at least for a short period of time, until another leader is announced, they might be disorientated,” she said.
Al-Baghdadi, who led ISIL for the last five years, was long thought to be hiding somewhere along the Iraq-Syria border.
He remained among the few ISIL commanders still at large despite multiple claims in recent years about his death and even as his so-called caliphate dramatically shrank, with many supporters who joined the cause either imprisoned or jailed.
On September 16, ISIL issued a 30-minute audio message purporting to come from al-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, al-Baghdadi also said the US and its proxies had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the US had been “dragged” into Mali and Niger.
The strike came amid concerns that a recent US pullback from northeastern Syria could infuse new strength into the group, which had lost vast stretches of territory it had once controlled.
Al Jazeera’s Osama bin Javaid said most of the details regarding the US operation were from unnamed US military sources claiming a joint special operation command force, known as JSOC, carried out this operation.
“The sources say the JSOC had intelligence, they went into a compound and a person detonated himself with a suicide vest. Sources in the US military believe that this was al-Baghdadi,” he said.
“We know that al-Baghdadi has not been seen in public since 2014 when he made that famous speech, and came up on the podium in Mosul and declared that ISIL had been formed.”
At the height of its power ISIL ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Despite losing its last significant territory, ISIL is believed to have sleeper cells around the world, and some fighters operate from the shadows in Syria’s desert and Iraq’s cities.