The US is believed to have carried out fresh raids on suspected senior Islamic State members in Syria overnight, as officials assessed a treasure trove of intelligence gathered from Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s final hideout.
Helicopters reported to be from the US-led coalition flew late on Monday night into al-Shuyukh village south of Jarablus, around three miles from a raid the previous day that killed Isil’s spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir.
Donald Trump, the US president, tweeted on Tuesday that Baghdadi's "number one replacement" had been killed.
He did not name who that was, but it is thought he was referring to Muhajir.
Analysts do not agree that Muhajir would have been Baghdadi's natural successor.
Just confirmed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s number one replacement has been terminated by American troops. Most likely would have taken the top spot - Now he is also Dead!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2019
A spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is believed to have jointly conducted the mission, said there had been a “successful raid targeting and arresting senior Isil members” on Monday night without elaborating.
Local sources reported that the mission lasted no more than 20 minutes and no clashes were heard.
“An Iraqi family had moved there in recent times,” Aghiad al-Kheder, co-founder of anti-Isil activist group Sound and Picture, told the Telegraph. “We think two men were taken away by the helicopters.”
The men’s identity, or relationship to Baghdadi, was not immediately known.
“We think it's related to the Baghdadi raid,” said Mr Kheder, whose group has sources on the ground in the area. ”For sure US found important documents and maybe in the next few days we will see many operations like this.”
Pentagon officials told the Washington Post that the documents and other information gathered during the raid on the compound in Barisha in Idlib province close to the Turkish border would prove useful in hunting down remaining senior Isil figures.
The officials said two men were also captured alive in the raid who they hoped could provide intelligence about the group.
Evidence was growing that Isil had an established smuggling ring, taking senior members from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and Qaim in western Iraqi to Idlib.
Kurdish spies cultivated a source inside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s inner circle who was able to steal the Islamic State leader’s underwear for DNA sampling and provide a detailed layout of his compound ahead of the US raid, the SDF commander said.
Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the head of the SDF, told NBC his intelligence officers had turned one of Baghdadi’s security advisors who was able to give critical information about the jihadist leader’s house and the tunnels beneath it.
The source took a pair of Baghdadi’s underwear and a blood sample to help US forces confirm who was hiding in the compound. The source was at the site on the night of the raid and was whisked out by US commandos.
Polat Can, a senior adviser to the SDF, revealed more detailed information about the group's role in finding Baghdadi.
"Since 15 May, we have been working together with the CIA,” said Polat Can, a senior adviser to the SDF. He said their surveillance tracked the 48-year-old reclusive leader moving to the village of Barisha in northern Idlib from northern Deir Ezzor in April.
Iraqi officials confirmed to the Telegraph that they had arrested members of Baghdadi’s inner circle who were part of the ring and gave up the leader’s location.
It is thought fighters with the Islamist group Hurras al-Din, an al-Qaeda-aligned group which is usually hostile to Isil, were also facilitating senior Isil leaders’ movement through rebel-held Idlib.
Baghdadi was discovered at the house of one Hurras al-Din commander, Abu Mohamed al-Halabi, who was killed in the raid.
Mustafa Bali, SDF’s spokesman, said that Muhajir, described as Baghdadi’s right-hand man, was believed to have been in the area in order to facilitate Baghdadi’s movements in Idlib and possibly on to Turkey.
Muhajir was targeted in the village of Ain al-Baydah near Turkish-administered Jarablus with the help of SDF intelligence.
Local sources said Muhajir had been travelling in a convoy made up of an oil tanker and a car.
The SDF has questioned how Ankara was not aware of the presence of Baghdadi and other senior leaders so close to areas in Syria under its control.