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Trump says ISIS leader killed in U.S. military assault

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of ISIS, is dead after being targeted by a U.S. military raid in Syria, President Donald Trump said Sunday.

3 children of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also killed in raid in Syria's Idlib province, U.S. president says

U.S. President Donald Trump announces the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. military raid in Syria. 0:42

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who presided over its global jihad and became arguably the world's most wanted man, is dead after being targeted by a U.S. military raid in Syria, President Donald Trump said Sunday.

Al-Baghdadi was targeted in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, in the Barisha area, late Saturday. Trump spoke at the White House on Sunday to announce the raid, saying the ISIS leader detonated a suicide vest during the operation, killing himself and three of his children.

Al-Baghdadi "died like a coward, crying, whimpering and screaming" as he ran to hide inside a tunnel, with U.S. troops closing in on him, Trump said. He said two wives of the ISIS leader, "both wearing vests," were also found dead in the rubble of the tunnel.

This image from April purportedly shows ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was reportedly the target of a U.S.-led military operation. (Al-Furqan media/The Associated Press)

Trump had teased Sunday's announcement, tweeting Saturday night that "Something very big has just happened!" By the morning, he was thanking Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish fighters in Syria for their support.

The operation's success could prove a major boost for Trump. The recent pullback of U.S. troops he ordered from northeastern Syria raised a storm of bipartisan criticism in Washington that the militant group could regain strength, after it had lost vast stretches of territory it had once controlled.

Praise for the military operation was swift, coming from U.S. allies and even the president's political opponents. In congratulating the U.S. forces and intelligence officials but not Trump, former vice-president Joe Biden warned that ISIS "remains a threat to the American people and our allies."

French President Emmanuel Macron warned on Twitter that the death is a knock against ISIS, but not its end. He said the U.S. raid was a "blow against Daesh," using the Arabic acronym for the group.

But he said "it's only a step," and "the fight continues with our partners in the international coalition so that the terrorist organization is definitely defeated."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syria war monitor, said a squadron of eight helicopters accompanied by a warplane belonging to the international coalition struck positions of the Hurras al-Deen, an al-Qaeda-linked group. ISIS operatives were believed to be hiding in the area, it said, a few kilometres from the Turkish border.

Syrians ride a motorcycle past a burnt vehicle near the site where helicopter gunfire reportedly killed nine people near the northwestern Syrian village of Barisha in Idlib province, along the border with Turkey, where 'groups linked to the Islamic State group' were present, according to a Britain-based war monitor with sources inside Syria. The helicopters targeted a home and a car on the outskirts of Barisha, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images)

It said the helicopters targeted ISIS positions with heavy strikes for about 120 minutes, during which jihadists fired at the aircraft with heavy weapons. The Britain-based Observatory, which operates through a network of activists on the ground, documented the death of nine people as a result of the coalition helicopter attack.

Kurdish officials described al-Baghdadi's death as a joint victory for their faltering alliance with the United States, weeks after Trump ordered American forces to withdraw from northeastern Syria, all but abandoning Washington's allies to a wide-ranging Turkish assault.

Strikes 5 months in the planning for SDF

The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, tweeted: "Successful & historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America." He said the SDF worked for five months as part of the operation, doing "intelligence work on the ground and precise tracking."

A senior Iraqi security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Iraqi intelligence played a part in the operation. The official added that other ISIS leaders were killed in the attack.

Al-Baghdadi had led ISIS for the last five years, presiding over its ascendancy as it cultivated a reputation for beheadings and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to a sprawling and self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. He remained among the few ISIS 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 imprisoned.

WATCH unverified TV footage of the military raid and its aftermath outside Barisha, Syria:

Footage from Iraqiya TV purportedly shows the U.S. led military raid and aftermath outside Barisha, Syria. 0:41

His exhortations were instrumental in inspiring terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and in the U.S. Shifting away from the airline hijackings and other mass-casualty attacks that came to define al-Qaeda, al-Baghdadi and other ISIS leaders supported smaller-scale acts of violence that would be harder for law enforcement to prepare for and prevent.

Al-Baghdadi far less visible in recent years

With a $25 million US bounty on his head, al-Baghdadi has been far less visible in recent years, releasing only sporadic audio recordings, including one just last month in which he called on members of the extremist group to do all they could to free ISIS detainees and women held in jails and camps.

The purported audio was his first public statement since April, when he appeared in a video for the first time in five years.

A picture taken Sunday shows the site of the helicopter gunfire which reportedly killed nine people near Barisha. A Britain-based war monitor said the helicopters targeted a home and a car on Barisha's outskirts. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2014, he was a black-robed figure delivering a sermon from the pulpit of Mosul's Great Mosque of al-Nuri, his only known public appearance. He urged Muslims around the world to swear allegiance to the caliphate and obey him as its leader.

Though at minimum a symbolic victory for Western counterterrorism efforts, his death would have unknown practical impact on possible future attacks. He had been largely regarded as a symbolic figurehead of the global terror network, and was described as "irrelevant for a long time" by a coalition spokesperson in 2017.

Al-Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq, and adopted his nom de guerre early on. Because of anti-U.S. militant activity, he was detained by U.S. forces in Iraq and sent to Bucca prison in February 2004, according to ISIS-affiliated websites.

He was released 10 months later, after which he joined the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He later assumed control of the group, known at the time as the Islamic State of Iraq.

After Syria's civil war erupted in 2011, al-Baghdadi set about pursuing a plan for a medieval-style Islamic State, or caliphate. He merged a group known as the Nusra Front, which initially welcomed moderate Sunni rebels who were part of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with a new one known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Al-Qaeda's central leadership refused to accept the takeover and broke with al-Baghdadi.

Al-Baghdadi's fighters captured a contiguous stretch of territory across Iraq and Syria, including key cities, and in June 2014, it announced its own state — or caliphate. Al-Baghdadi became the declared caliph of the newly renamed ISIS group. Under his leadership, the group became known for macabre massacres and beheadings — often posted online on militant websites — and a strict adherence to an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

Iran's information minister said the killing of al-Baghdadi in a U.S. military operation is no big deal.

Javad Azari Jahromi said on his Twitter account: "Not a big deal! You just killed your creature."

He did not elaborate. Iran has often accused the U.S. of creating ISIS without providing any evidence.

Also on Sunday, hardliner Abdollah Ganji suggested that the killing of al-Baghdadi will be a key issue in next year's U.S. presidential election.

The editor-in-chief of Javan newspaper said: "Why are they being killed in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election?"

With files from Reuters and CBC News