US official: IS leader believed dead in US military assault

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

A U.S. official told The Associated Press late Saturday that al-Baghdadi was targeted in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. The official said confirmation that the IS chief was killed in an explosion was pending. No other details were available. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the strike and spoke on condition of anonymity.

President Donald Trump teased a major announcement, tweeting Saturday night that "Something very big has just happened!" A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said Trump would make a "major statement" at 9 a.m. EDT Sunday.

A senior Iraqi security official told the AP that Iraqi intelligence played a part in the operation. Al-Baghdadi and his wife detonated explosive vests they were wearing during the U.S. commando operation, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the sensitive information and spoke on condition of anonymity. He added that other IS leaders were killed in the attack.

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Iraqi grandmother fends for 22 grandchildren after ISIS killed her sons
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Iraqi grandmother fends for 22 grandchildren after ISIS killed her sons
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, is seen with her grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, prepares food with grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, pray with grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, buys fruits in Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2018. Picture taken August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, carries fruit with her grandchildren in Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2018. Picture taken August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, carries grape leaves to prepare food at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic state militants, prepares food at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Grandchildren of an Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, play with a bicycle in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Grandchildren of an Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, play at their home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, receives aid and distributes it to her grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2018. Picture taken August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Granddaughter of an Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee shows her dress that she received from the aid in Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2018. Picture taken August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, play with her grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose her five sons were killed by Islamic state militants, prepare to pray with grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, play with her grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, receives aid and distributes it to her grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2018. Picture taken August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Grandchildren of an Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, play with a motorcycle in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, play with her grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
An Iraqi woman Sana Ibrahim al-Taee, 64, whose five sons were killed by Islamic State militants, poses for a photograph with her husband and her grandchildren at her home in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
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If confirmed, 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.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syria war monitor, reported an attack carried out by a squadron of eight helicopters accompanied by a warplane belonging to the international coalition on positions of the Hurras al-Deen, an al-Qaida-linked group, in the Barisha area north of Idlib city, after midnight on Saturday. IS operatives were believed to be hiding in the area, it said.

It said the helicopters targeted IS 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 9 people as a result of the coalition helicopter attack. It was not immediately known whether al-Baghdadi was one of them, it said.

Al-Baghdadi's presence in the village, a few kilometers from the Turkish border, would come as a surprise, even if some IS leaders are believed to have fled to Idlib after losing their last sliver of territory in Syria to U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in March. The surrounding areas are largely controlled by an IS rival, the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, although other jihadi groups sympathetic to IS operate there. Unverified video circulated online by Syrian groups appeared to support the Observatory claim that the operation occurred in Barisha.

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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An Islamic State flag hangs on the wall of an abandoned building in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area March 1, 2015. Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing Tel Hamis, an important town, on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said. The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war. REUTERS/Rodi Said (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Tripods and a projector are pictured inside an ancient Hammam that was used by Islamic State militants as a media centre in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows part of a media centre that belonged to Islamic State militants inside an ancient Hammam in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A view shows car parts, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used by Islamic State militants to prepare car bombs, at a workshop in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Iraqi soldiers inspect a vehicle used for suicide car bombings, made by Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A captured Islamic State tank and shells are seen at the Iraqi army base in Qaraqosh, east of Mosul, Iraq November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rocket-propelled grenades left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Explosives left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of Iraqi security forces takes a selfie at a building that was used by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A book belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi officer displays Russian passports, which he says belong to Islamic State fighters, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A man who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul shows his marriage certificate issued by the Islamic State militants at temporary court at Khazer camp in Iraq, January 18, 2017. Picture taken January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an Islamic State militants weapons factory in Falluja, Iraq, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter inspects a room, which according to the SDF was used by Islamic State militants to prepare explosives, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
U.S. Special Operations Forces members inspect a drone used by Islamic State militants to drop explosives on Iraqi forces, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A member of Iraqi security forces inspects a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A mass grave for Islamic State militants are seen in Falluja, Iraq, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
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The intelligence source on the militant leader's whereabouts could not be immediately confirmed, but both Iraqi and Kurdish officials claimed a role. The Turkish military also tweeted that before the operation in Idlib, it exchanged "information" and coordinated with U.S. military authorities.

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

The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, tweeted: "Successful& historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America."

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

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Boy reunited with family after being sold by ISIS
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Boy reunited with family after being sold by ISIS

Ayman, a boy from a minority Yazidi community, who was sold by Islamic State militants to a Muslim couple in Mosul, hugs his grandmother after he was returned to his Yazidi family, in Duhok, Iraq, January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Ayman (C), a boy from a minority Yazidi community, who was sold by Islamic State militants to a Muslim couple in Mosul, poses for a photograph with other children after he was returned to his Yazidi family in Duhok, Iraq, January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Abu Ahmed, who bought Yazidi boy Ayman from Islamic State militants in Mosul, shows a picture of Ayman on his phone in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Iraq, January 30, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Iraqi army soldiers stand guard in front of Abu and Umm Ahmed's home, a Muslim couple who bought Yazidi boy Ayman from Islamic State militants, in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Iraq, January 30, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Ayman, a boy from a minority Yazidi community, who was sold by Islamic State militants to a Muslim couple in Mosul, sits beside his uncle Samir Rasho Khalaf (L) after he was returned to his Yazidi family in Duhok, Iraq, January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Abu Ahmed, who bought Yazidi boy Ayman from Islamic State militants in Mosul, shows Ayman's toys in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Iraq, January 30, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Abu Ahmed and his wife Umm, a Muslim couple who bought Yazidi boy Ayman from Islamic State militants in Mosul, speak during an interview with Reuters in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Iraq, January 30, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Ayman (C), a boy from a minority Yazidi community, who was sold by Islamic State militants to a Muslim couple in Mosul, plays with other children after he was returned to his Yazidi family in Duhok, Iraq, January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Ayman, a boy from a minority Yazidi community, who was sold by Islamic State militants to a Muslim couple in Mosul, is greeted by his relative after he was returned to his Yazidi family in Duhok, Iraq, January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

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

They encouraged jihadists who could not travel to the caliphate to kill where they were, with whatever weapon they had at their disposal. In the U.S., multiple extremists have pledged their allegiance to al-Baghdadi on social media, including a woman who along with her husband committed a 2015 massacre at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California.

With a $25 million U.S. 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 IS detainees and women held in jails and camps.

The purported audio was his first public statement since last April, when he appeared in a video for the first time in five years. In that video, which included images of the extremist leader sitting in a white room with three others, al-Baghdadi praised Easter Day bombings that killed more than 250 people and called on militants to be a "thorn" against their enemies.

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.

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Woman freed from ISIS, removes niqab for first time
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Woman freed from ISIS, removes niqab for first time
Souad Hamidi, 19, removes the niqab she said she had been forced to wear since 2014, after U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces took control of her village Am Adasa in northern Syria from Islamic State fighters, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Souad Hamidi, 19, removes the niqab she said she had been forced to wear since 2014, after U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces took control of her village Am Adasa in northern Syria from Islamic State fighters, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Souad Hamidi, 19, removes the niqab she said she had been forced to wear since 2014, after U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces took control of her village Am Adasa in northern Syria from Islamic State fighters, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Souad Hamidi, 19, stands near the niqab she said she had been forced to wear since 2014, after U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces took control of her village Am Adasa in northern Syria from Islamic State fighters, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Souad Hamidi (C), 19, stands near the niqab she said she had been forced to wear since 2014, after U.S. backed Syria Democratic Forces took control of her village Am Adasa in northern Syria from Islamic State fighters, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A combination picture shows Souad Hamidi, 19, removing the niqab she said she had been forced to wear since 2014, after U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces took control of her village Am Adasa in northern Syria from Islamic State fighters, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Souad Hamidi (2nd L), 19, poses for a photograph inside her family home, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 11, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Souad Hamidi (2nd L), 19, sits with other members of her family inside their home, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 11, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Souad Hamidi (3rd L), 19, poses for a photograph with other members of her family inside their home, in the outskirts of Manbij, Aleppo province, Syria June 11, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
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"It is a burden to accept this responsibility to be in charge of you," he said in the video. "I am not better than you or more virtuous than you. If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God."

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 terrorist network and was described as "irrelevant for a long time" by a coalition spokesman 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 IS-affiliated websites.

He was released 10 months later, after which he joined the al-Qaida 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 Assad, with a new one known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Al-Qaida's central leadership refused to accept the takeover and broke with al-Baghdadi.

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Inside ISIS tunnels
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Inside ISIS tunnels
A member of the peshmerga forces inspects a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Iraqi soldiers look a tunnel build by Islamic State fighters in a building destroyed by an airstrike in a village of Mahana some 60 km south of Mosul, Iraq, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters in a village of Har Bardun, Iraq, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle as he look a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization look at a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization stand near a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization walk past a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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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 Islamic State 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.

Over the years, he has been reported multiple times to have been killed, but none has been confirmed. In 2017, Russian officials said there was a "high probability" he had been killed in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa, but U.S. officials later said they believed he was still alive.

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Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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