Who was Al Baghdadi and why is his death relevant?

  • Trump has announced that the ISIS leader has died following an intervention by US military units in northwestern Syria
  • The self-proclaimed caliph was the operational leader of the terrorist group and symbol of his Islamic credentials
  • According to Trump, Al Baghdadi fled to a dead-end tunnel and detonated a suicide vest, causing his death and that of three of his children


Donald Trump has announced that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has died following an intervention by US military units in northwestern Syria. “Last night the US did justice with the world’s number one terrorist,” the US president said Sunday.

Who was Al Baghdadi? Why is his death significant? How and where did he die? Where had he been before? Here, some answers:

Who was Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi?

Al Baghdadi is believed to have been born in 1971 in Samarra, a city in central Iraq. Although he was a mediocre student whose poor eyesight prevented him from entering the Iraqi Army, he managed to lead the Iraqi division of Al Qaeda before separating to create ISIS.

In July 2014, shortly after ISIS said it had formed a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Al Baghdadi delivered a sermon from a mosque in Mosul. Showing his face for the first time from the busy Iraqi city, Al Baghdadi called himself Caliph: the political and religious leader of the entire Muslim community.

Although almost all religious authorities in Islam flatly rejected his statement, the caliphate functioned as a magnet for thousands of fighters and women from other countries. The group was not content to dominate territory but instead managed it as a State, with tax collection, public services, and a brutal justice system.

Al Baghdadi was only seen again in public on another occasion, in an 18-minute video published in April this year. There has been a reward of $ 25 million for his head since 2016.

For years it was said that he had suffered serious injuries during airstrikes. Before Sunday, there were several occasions when he was presumed dead, but Al Baghdadi continued to appear in audio and video recordings.

Why is his death relevant?

In March, ISIS lost its last stronghold in the Syrian city of Baghouz, a serious blow in the military and in the symbolic because it left the terrorist group without the possibility of continuing to proclaim itself as the new Islamic caliphate.

The defeat caused Al Baghdadi’s first video appearance in five years. It was read as an attempt to strengthen their leadership against internal dissent, as well as proof that the group continued to exist even without territory.

In addition to serving as chief of operations, Al Baghdadi was a symbol of the Islamic credentials of ISIS. He claimed to belong to the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad and descend from a grandson of the prophet. He fulfilled, according to his own vision, the ideological and religious requirements necessary to aspire to the leadership of Muslims.

His death is, therefore, another blow against the supposed legitimacy of ISIS. In its own logic, ISIS today has fewer arguments than before to say different from other violent and extremist groups.

How and where did he die?

At his press conference on Sunday, Donald Trump said that Al Baghdadi died on Saturday night during a raid by US special forces in his stronghold in Idlib province, northwest Syria. According to Trump, Al Baghdadi fled to a dead-end tunnel and detonated a suicide vest, causing his death and that of three of his children. The president also said DNA tests were done at the scene and that US forces took some of his remains.

In reports citing anonymous sources of US, Iranian and Iraqi officials, it is said that the raid took place in Barisha. In a video posted from that town, you can see a building reduced to rubble, bodies scattered around the place and deep craters on the ground.

What do we know about his previous movements?

Al Baghdadi was thought to have hidden in eastern Syria, near the border with his native Iraq. It is said that he deployed many measures to avoid being found, such as never using mobile phones, changing houses frequently and avoiding group trips so as not to attract attention.

Few would have guessed that he was hiding in Idlib. Surrounded by Russian and Syrian forces, most of the province is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist militia against ISIS, whose members it has hunted and executed on several occasions.

Some say that Al Baghdadi recently arrived in Idlib, fleeing the recent Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, followed by the advances of the Syrian and Russian armies.

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