In what US President Donald Trump is calling a "dangerous and daring" nighttime operation, the raid by US troops to kill the head of terror group Islamic State unfolded under cover of darkness.
Helicopters inserted a team of American Special Operations troops into a volatile area of north-west Syria, where they began an assault on a militant compound culminating in a retreat by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi into an underground hideaway.
There, in a "dead-end tunnel", Trump said, the militant leader detonated an explosive vest, killing himself and three of what were believed to be his six children.
Officials said US intelligence in recent days tracked the militant leader, a one-time academic and veteran jihadist who spent a year in a US-run prison in Iraq, to a site in Syria's Idlib province, a restive area near Syria's border with Turkey and home to an array of extremist groups.
Vice President Mike Pence, speaking to CBS, said he and Trump were first informed of the likelihood al-Baghdadi would be at the target site on Thursday.
Trump authorised the mission on Saturday morning. Officials said two US service members were lightly wounded in the operation and that additional militants were killed, including two women identified as al-Baghdadi's wives who were wearing explosive vests.
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'He was a sick and depraved man, and now he's gone'
Trump on Sunday announced that al-Baghdadi died during a US military operation in Syria, an important breakthrough more than five years after the militant chief launched a self-proclaimed caliphate that inspired violence worldwide.
"Last night the United States brought the world's No. 1 terrorist leader to justice," Trump said in a televised announcement from the White House.
"He was a sick and depraved man, and now he's gone."
Officials said the US coordinated with Russia, which is an important backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and operates air defence systems in Syria, to ensure the safety of US personnel during the raid.
Trump described a harrowing operation that involved firefights before and after US personnel, ferried under the cover of darkness in eight helicopters, touched down in Idlib.
He said the military had taken DNA samples from al-Baghdadi's remains and had quickly conducted tests to determine his identity. Nearly a dozen children were removed from the site, the president said. It's unclear where they were taken.
"Baghdadi was vicious and violent, and he died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward running and crying," he said. Baghdadi's actions during the operation could not be immediately verified.
Daughter provided DNA
One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details, said that troops from Delta Force, an elite military unit, conducted the operation with support from the CIA and Kurdish forces.
The official said al-Baghdadi had been located in large part thanks to the fact that US intelligence agencies had intensified their focus on Idlib because of militants there with loose links to al Qaeda.
The DNA material needed to identify Baghdadi was voluntarily provided by one of his daughters, the official said.
The high-risk operation brings a dramatic end to a years-long hunt for the man who spearheaded IS's transformation from an underground insurgent band to a powerful quasi-state that straddled two countries and spawned copycat movements across several continents.
At its peak, IS controlled an area the size of Great Britain, boasting a massive military arsenal and a formidable financial base that it used to threaten the West and brutalise those under its control.
While the group gradually lost territory to US-backed Syrian and Iraqi fighters, officials cautioned that it remains a potent insurgent force, even after al-Baghdadi's death.
Trump praised his military and intelligence officials for the operation, which he said he watched from the White House situation room on Sunday afternoon with Pence, Defence Secretary Mark Esper, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior officials.
In describing the importance of al-Baghdadi's death, Trump named American citizens whose executions by Islamic State first pulled the United States into a military operation against the group, including James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig.
Pence said the Pentagon leadership had named the operation after Kayla Mueller, an American woman who died in Islamic State custody and whom US officials have said was repeatedly raped by al-Baghdadi.
During the group's extremist reign, many more Iraqis and Syrians were killed or brutalised. Militants also enslaved women and children from Iraq's Yazidi minority.
The operation served as a reminder of the grim series of events set off by the rise of the IS, and the sophisticated global propaganda and recruitment network that rise enabled.
Among the high-profile acts of violence the group inspired outside its physical territory were the 2015 attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, California. The group also used its financial and political power to stand up potent foreign affiliates in places like Libya.
The Pentagon continues to conduct attacks against self-branded Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
While al-Baghdadi, 48, a native of the Iraqi city of Samarra, was not the first leader of the evolving militant organisation that eventually became Islamic State, he oversaw its rise to global prominence in 2014 as it took advantage of instability and weak governance, and rolled across Iraq and Syria.
Despite publicly declaring an ambitious extremist vision in a high-profile address that same year, Baghdadi remained a distant, reclusive figure even to his supporters.
In recent years, he has attempted to usher the organisation into a renewed underground phase, urging followers in an audio message issued last month to launch attacks against security forces and to attempt to break imprisoned brethren out of jail.