BEIRUT — Syrian Kurdish forces killed the right-hand man and spokesman for the Islamic State group in a joint operation with U.S. troops in northern Syria, just hours after U.S. special forces killed the extremist group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Kurdish commander said Monday.
The comments came a day after President Donald Trump announced the killing of al-Baghdadi, a development that left the Islamic State group without an obvious leader — a major setback for a terror organization that in March was forced by American troops and Kurdish forces out of the last portion of its self-declared “caliphate,” which once spanned a swath of Iraq and Syria.
Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said his group’s intelligence cooperated with the U.S. military to target on Sunday al-Baghdadi’s aide, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, in a village near Jarablus, a town in northwestern Syria. It was part of ongoing operations to hunt down Islamic State group leaders, Abdi said.
If confirmed, the death of the would be another blow to the Islamic State group. U.S. officials had no immediate comment on the Syrian Kurdish claim or on the fate of al-Muhajir.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported al-Muhajir’s death, saying he was traveling in a convoy made up of an oil tanker and a sedan. The bodies of those killed in the attack were charred and it wasn’t immediately clear how the al-Muhajir’s identity could have been confirmed.
The U.S. raid that killed al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the Islamic State group who presided over its global jihad and became arguably the world’s most wanted terrorist, took place just before midnight on Saturday in Syria’s Idlib province.
It was a milestone in the fight against the Islamic State group, which brutalized much of Syria and Iraq and sought to direct a global campaign from a self-declared “caliphate.” A yearslong campaign by American and allied forces led to the recapture of the group’s territorial holdings, but its violent ideology has continued to inspire attacks.
Syrian Kurdish forces spokesman Mustafa Bali said his fighters believe al-Muhajir was in Jarablus to facilitate al-Baghdadi’s travels to the area, which is administered by Turkey-backed fighters.
“More [Islamic State group figures] remain hiding in the area,” Bali said late Sunday.
Little is known about al-Muhajir, who assumed the role of a spokesman after his predecessor was killed in an airstrike in 2016. The name, a nom-de-guerre, indicates that he is a foreigner, and he was also believed to be a possible successor to al-Baghdadi.
Al-Baghdadi’s identity was confirmed by a DNA test conducted onsite, Trump had said. The operation coincided with a low point in Trump’s presidency as he is mired in impeachment proceedings and facing widespread Republican condemnation for his Syria policy.
Trump’s decision to pull back U.S. troops from northeastern Syria raised a storm of bipartisan criticism in Washington, including statements that the American pullout could help the Islamic State group regain strength after losing all the territory it once controlled. The pullback also was viewed as an abandonment of the U.S.’s only ally in Syria, the Kurdish-led forces, who fought the Islamic State group for years with the U.S-led coalition.
Trump said the troop pullout “had nothing to do with this,” and said Kurdish forces were among the many cooperating to execute the operation to kill al-Baghdadi.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish officials claimed a role. The Turkish military also tweeted that prior to the operation in Idlib, it exchanged “information” and coordinated with U.S. military.
Syrian 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.