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Only on AP: In his last days, al-Baghdadi sought safety in shrinking domain

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The death of the Islamic State group’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was one of the biggest and most competitive stories in the world in recent weeks. Journalists from various news organizations were scrambling to uncover details about the operation and how the Islamic State leader ended up in a hideout in Syria before his death.

Beirut-based Middle East reporter Sarah El Deeb put the AP out front with a story based on exclusive interviews that recounted al-Baghdadi’s final days before he blew himself up during an Oct. 26 raid by U.S. special forces on his heavily fortified safe house. El Deeb obtained insights on Baghdadi’s last days from a teenage girl the terrorist held as a slave by al-Baghdadi while he was on the run — his once expansive territory shrinking to a few isolated pockets in northern Syria.

El Deeb’s story included vivid details about how al-Baghdadi was being shuttled around Syria by a dwindling circle of confidants and wearing a disguise as a shepherd to avoid detection in desert towns. Associates described him as a “nervous wreck,” increasingly paranoid that traitors were in his midst.

Enhancing the narrative were dramatic details from the teenager who had been enslaved. El Deeb elicited the details through sensitive and dogged reporting.

Weeks earlier, while working on an investigative piece about the Islamic State group’s slavery of Yazidi women,El Deeb had met the teenager in Iraq who told her how she was kept by the IS leader and taken with him as he furtively moved around. El Deeb kept in touch with her,and when the news of his death broke, she reached out to her again and obtained untold details. She also spoke with trusted Kurdish and Iraqi officials and associates who painted a powerful inside look at al-Baghdadi’s last days. Baghdad reporter Qassim Abdul Zahra also contributed with an official source.

The story demonstrated not only the AP’s dominance on a global story but also trusted ability to provide facts-based reporting from the ground in the region. The story stood out from the many accounts that simply echoed the circumstances of the death articulated by President Donald Trump in his announcement about the U.S. raid.

The story demonstrated the AP’s dominance on a global story and its ability to provide facts-based reporting from the ground in the region.

AP’s story was widely credited on TV,radio and websites and in print and resulted in numerous media requests for an interview. The story was mentioned in The Washington Post’s daily newsletter,featured in teh widely read Politico Playbook,and cited on social media by IS and Syria experts. The story received 150,000 page views on AP News and appeared on front pages in the U.S.

For outstanding source work and reporting on a story of intense interest, Sarah El Deeb wins AP’s Best of the Week award.

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