DNA testing used to identify al-Baghdadi

President Donald Trump announced that the Islamic State (IS) group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a daring night-time raid by US special forces in northwest Syria. Trump told the nation in a televised White House address that a large number of IS militants were killed during the raid, which culminated in al-Baghdadi becoming cornered and detonating a suicide vest.

Following the announcement of al-Baghdadi’s demise, Russia raised doubts. Baghdadi’s death has been reported several times over the years.

Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement: “The Defense Ministry does not have reliable information… concerning the umpteenth ‘death’ of Baghdadi”.

Trump said there was no doubt this time, with a DNA field test confirming his identity.

DNA testing advances

Special forces knew al-Baghdadi was the target and identified his body swiftly, even after he blew himself up. However, no details have been provided to explain how that identification was made. There have been reports that al-Baghdadi’s underwear was stolen by an undercover agent of Syrian Democratic Forces and DNA tested to confirm his identity before the raid in Syria. In addition, the quick turnaround after al-Baghdadi’s death suggests that DNA technology was again employed.

When al-Baghdadi killed himself with a suicide vest, it’s likely that DNA samples, in the form of body parts or blood, would have been collected. Over the past 2–3 years, advances in DNA technology have led to the production of portable rapid DNA devices, which can provide accurate automated results in as little as 90 minutes. Both the Pentagon and the FBI have invested in the technology.

In June 2018, the FBI approved the use of an automated system known as ANDE. This was developed by the military to process cheek swabs and other DNA. It has since been used on human remains found after wildfires swept through Northern California and by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS agents use the rapid DNA pilot program to process cheek swabs from migrants.

The rapid DNA machines can be as small as a microwave, and easily stored in a military helicopter. It is not known whether the forces who conducted Saturday’s raid had one on hand, but samples could have been flown to a military facility elsewhere for the DNA testing.

It is possible that the US sampled and stored al-Baghdadi’s DNA when he was imprisoned at an American-run detention center in Iraq in the mid-2000s. This sample could then be matched against the DNA found at the detonation scene. Alternatively, DNA matches can also be conducted by comparing a person’s sample to that of a close relative.

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