‘We heard bullets, we didn’t know what was going on’: Terrified witnesses describe moment US troops stormed Baghdadi compound

‘Some bodies were pulled out from under the rubble. Some bodies were burned. I saw one body cut in pieces like it had been blown up’

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Sunday 27 October 2019 18:04 GMT
Locals walk past a damaged van at the alleged site where Isis leader was killed
Locals walk past a damaged van at the alleged site where Isis leader was killed

It was midnight on a quiet Saturday night when the residents of Barisha village in northwest Syria were jolted awake by the deafening trill of helicopters overhead, and the drumbeat of heavy machine gunfire.

Many told The Independent they had no idea a major US operation was underway against one of the most wanted and feared men in the world.

The area, a 15-minute drive to the Turkish border, is home to locals and people displaced from other parts of the country. Unusually for Syria, it is often quiet.

On the other side of the world, President Trump teased the globe with a 3am tweet saying “something very big has just happened”. Hours later he would eventually confirm that Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a successful US operation which took out several of his associates.

“It was incredibly loud and started around midnight. The gunfire from the choppers was intense. It woke the residents up and terrified them,” said Ahmed, a Syrian journalist who lives in the area and later went to the site of the raid. He asked for his name to be withheld.

“It was night and dark. We heard the bullets and didn’t want to leave our houses not knowing what was going on.

Iraqi state media posts clip of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid in northern Syria

He told The Independent only one family saw what happened close up as they lived in a tent next door to the building where Baghdadi was hiding.

“They said foreign soldiers with machine guns stormed in and took them away. People they had never seen before. The soldiers told the residents in Arabic to leave but kept some of them sitting underneath an olive tree until they completed the operation.”

Ahmed added: “When they left, after taking prisoners and killing the rest, a plane came and struck the house to completely destroy it.”

In a different part of the countryside, another resident said that the exchange of fire went on until 3am.

“After that the site was targeted by five airstrikes by fighter jets followed by four more strikes. They were absolutely huge and lit up the sky,” Mohamed, another local reporter, said.

Another person said he saw at least three helicopters leaving with what he was told were bodies and captives.

“The house was completely taken out,” Abu Ahmed added.

Mr Trump later said from the White House that Baghdadi died “whimpering, screaming and crying” as he blew himself up with a suicide vest after being chased into a dead-end tunnel by US army dogs.

The president confirmed that nine people in total including two women, believed to be Baghdadi’s wives, were also killed, and 11 children were rescued.

Three other children were killed as Baghdadi had apparently dragged them with him into the tunnel when he killed himself.

“He died like a dog, he died like a coward,” Mr Trump said adding that Baghdadi’s identity was positively confirmed by a DNA test conducted onsite.

Planning for the operation began two weeks ago and had to be called off twice because Baghdadi switched plans.

Eight military helicopters flew for more than an hour over territory controlled by Russian and Syrian forces and landed under gunfire, Trump confirmed.

The US forces spent around two hours in the compound and took away ”sensitive information” relating to Isis, he said.

Iraq and the Kurdish forces are believed to have provided vital intelligence on the whereabouts of the wanted jihadi leader.

Back in Barisha, questions were raised about what the Isis chief was doing in Idlib, an area controlled by Isis’s main rivals Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, who are affiliates of al-Qaeda.

HTS forces, who apparently had no idea their arch-foe was hiding in the area, are currently guarding the raid site and preventing people from having full access.

At the destroyed compound journalist Ahmed said the building was completely flattened and in one area there was a two-metre deep crater from the airstrikes.

Terrified residents told him US soldiers, who landed in helicopters, ordered civilians to leave or stay back and handed over several children they found in the area to a local shepherd for safekeeping.

After a fierce gun battle, the US soldiers were seen leaving with some bodies and captives, others were left scattered behind.

“I counted seven bodies in body bags, one of which was a smaller body bag for a child and two were women,” Ahmed said, after visiting the site on Sunday morning.

“Some bodies were pulled out from under the rubble. Some bodies were burned. I saw one body cut in pieces like it had been blown up,” he added.

According to local residents, the building was owned by a man known as Abu Mohamed al-Halabi.

Trump, Mike Pence (second left), Mark Esper (third right), along with members of the national security team, watch as Baghdadi is killed

Idlib reporters citing HTS sources said he was a well-known figure in Hurras al-Din, a lesser-known al-Qaeda offshoot started by disgruntled former HTS leaders.

They believe Baghdadi was in the area for high-level meetings to strike deals with the veteran jihadi group. But al-Halabi’s neighbours had no idea.

“I asked about him, but people know nothing except that he is a food trader. They said he was a merchant who drove a blue Hyundai and kept himself to himself,” the reporter continued.

“The women who lived next door said he would leave in the morning and return only by night. He didn’t get any visitors and never visited anyone. They didn’t know much about him and whether he was a member of any factions.”

No one saw Baghdadi and his entourage arrive.

“Even his close neighbours living just 4 meters away, said they didn’t know anything about Halabi or that Baghdadi was there,” Mohamed said.

“It's incredible we had no idea such an important and wanted person was right there.”

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