WASHINGTON — U.S. special forces in Syria carried out a successful operation in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State militant group, died, President Trump announced Sunday.
“Last night the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Trump said during a televised appearance at the White House.
The raid, which Trump said took roughly two hours, was carried out Saturday in Syria’s Idlib Province, in the northwestern part of the country.
No U.S. personnel were killed in the raid, Trump said, adding that al-Baghdadi died by detonating a suicide vest after being trapped in a tunnel. The explosion killed three children who were with the terrorist leader, Trump said.
Two women, believed to be wives of al-Baghdadi, also died in the raid, he said, and 11 children who survived the raid were turned over to local forces.
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said, vowing that the U.S. would “continue to pursue the remaining ISIS terrorists,” referring to the Islamic State group.
“Last night was a great night for the United States and for the world,” Trump said. “He died like a coward, the world is now a much safer place.”
During a nearly 50-minute exchange with reporters, Trump revealed an extraordinary level of operational information about the raid—details normally withheld—with much of it aimed at driving home the argument that al-Baghdadi was not a powerful militant leader, but a weak and evil man.
“He died after running into a dead-end tunnel whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Trump said, adding that he watched much of the operation from the White House Situation Room as it took place.
It was “like a movie,” he said, describing al-Baghdadi being chased in the tunnel by one of the Army’s trained dogs and noting that the assault team brought a robot with them for pursuit, but didn’t use it because the operation moved too quickly.
“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread,” he said.
Trump mixed that message with characteristic self-aggrandizement.
“Bin Laden was big, but this was bigger,” he declared at one point, referring to the 2011 raid in which U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden during former President Obama’s tenure. Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center, but Baghdadi attempted to build a country, Trump said. At another point he claimed, falsely, that he had advocated killing Bin Laden long before anyone else had realized the importance of the al-Qaida leader.
Trump’s rhetoric drew some immediate criticism, including from figures in his own party. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the senior GOP member of the House Armed Services Committee, said during an interview on CNN on Sunday that some of the remarks made him “uncomfortable.”
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U.S. forces had al-Baghdadi under surveillance for the “last couple of weeks,” Trump said, as the militant leader repeatedly changed his plans. The raid involved U.S. commandos who arrived on scene in eight helicopters, flying over Turkish and Syrian territory, he said. The commandos used explosives to enter the compound in which al-Baghdadi was located, according to Trump.
The flight in was the most dangerous part of the operation, Trump noted. Trump declined to say where the helicopters took off from, but his description of the flight strongly suggested a base in Iraq.
The commandos were “met with gunfire,” but the opposing forces were quickly killed, Trump said. In addition to al-Baghdadi’s death, the raid also netted “highly sensitive material” that will be useful in tracking other militants, he said.
In the operation’s aftermath, regional allies of the U.S. — including Syrian Kurds, Iraq and Turkey — rushed to claim credit for helping U.S. commandos launch the attack. Trump said the raid was carried out with “cooperation” from Russia, Iraq, Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria. The Kurds provided “information” that was helpful, he said.
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Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who appeared on a number of Sunday morning interview shows, was far more tight-lipped than the president about the intelligence that led to the raid and the way it played out, but confirmed that the Islamic State leader had committed suicide by detonating an explosive vest after being pursued into a tunnel.
“The aim was to capture,” Esper said on CNN. “We tried to call him out and asked him to surrender himself. He refused.”
The president, who has been under intense criticism from lawmakers in both parties in recent weeks for his withdrawal of U.S. troops from a different part of Syria—the Turkey-Syria border in the northeastern part of the country—teased the news Saturday night, tweeting, “Something very big has just happened!”
He released the tweet as soon as the U.S. troops landed safely, he said, but ordered his aides not to inform senior Democratic members of Congress. Typically, the congressional leadership is notified of such missions.
“Washington is a leaking machine, and I told my people we will not notify them until our great people are out,” he said.
Leaks happened anyway. Within minutes of Trump’s tweet, reports quickly began circulating that al-Baghdadi had been targeted in the raid and had died, but military officials could not confirm the death until they conducted DNA tests.
Trump said the identification was certain, based on an “on-site test” of body parts. The team conducting the raid included lab technicians, he said.
Al-Baghdadi has been previously reported killed several times—each time resurfacing. He was known for taking extensive security precautions, mostly avoiding appearing in public. The last known images of him came from a video released in April by Islamic State in which he exhorted militants to continue attacks on Western targets.
His death, if confirmed, would be a major blow to Islamic State, although jihadi groups have repeatedly shown the ability to regroup after the deaths of their leaders. The group is believed to still command the loyalty of as many as 18,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, U.S. defense officials reported recently.
Esper stressed that point in his appearances Sunday. Just because the militants no longer hold territory doesn’t mean they can’t take root again, he said, adding that the U.S. military has to “continually monitor” the situation.
“It’s hard to defeat an ideology,” he said. “So what we’re going to have to do is stay on top of this.”
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Under al-Baghdadi, Islamic State in 2014 overran large parts of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria, allowing him to proclaim the reestablishment of an Islamic caliphate on the territory it had conquered.
At its peak, Islamic State controlled a swath of territory from Mosul in Iraq west to the Euphrates River valley in Syria, putting a population of some 12 million people under its control. Al-Baghdadi formed alliances with radical Islamic groups from Afghanistan to north Africa, and his group drew recruits from Europe and across the Islamic world.
Since the downfall of the group’s last strongholds this spring, al-Baghdadi has been one of the world’s most hunted fugitives.
The raid in which he appears to have died took place in or near Barisha, a small town in northwestern Syria not far from the border with Turkey. The region lies some 250 miles west of the remote shadowlands of the Syrian-Iraqi border where al-Baghdadi was thought to have been hiding, raising questions how he had slipped away from that region.
Syrian activists posted video on social media showing large explosions and the sound of small-arms fire in the Barisha area. In one video, the roar of warplanes is punctuated by a series of massive blasts. Another video shows some of the results of the attack: A cameraman walks in the village, filming the burned husk of a car as well as charred corpses.
Residents in the area contacted via the WhatsApp messaging service said explosions could be heard miles away. Some ran up to their rooftops, and saw tracer fire streaking during the firefight.
The area where the raid took place has long served as a conduit for ferrying people and war supplies across the border to and from Turkey.
The region is dominated by jihadist groups hostile to Islamic State, making al-Baghdadi’s presence there surprising. The radical Islamic group in that part of Syria fought pitched battles against Islamic State, which they saw as a rival, since 2013. The area also falls under the supervision of Turkish military observation posts.
Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi believed to be in his 40s, joined the Islamist insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq following the 2003 invasion of that country. As a relatively low-level member of the insurgency, he was captured in 2004 and held for close to a year by the U.S. in the Abu Ghraib detention facility. He was released in late 2004, and rejoined the militants.
He was publicly declared the leader of Islamic State in 2010 and survived several attempts by the U.S. and its allies to kill or capture him. The chaos spread by Syria’s civil war allowed the group to take root in the eastern part of the country, along the border with Iraq, which provided a springboard for its sweeping conquests in 2014.
In 2015, under former President Obama, the U.S., working with the Iraqi government and Kurdish allies in Syria, began the effort to roll back Islamic State’s gains. An offensive to retake Mosul began in late 2016. The military continued that strategy under Trump, who declared in March that Kurdish militias allied with the U.S. had retaken the last of the territory that Islamic State had held.
But U.S. military officials and regional allies have repeatedly warned that the battle against the militants was far from over.
In April, the militants released an 18-minute video in which a man identified as al-Baghdadi repeatedly praised the “steadfastness” of militants and said that although Islamic State had lost territory, “jihad is ongoing until the day of judgment.”
Last week as Trump took credit for a cease-fire between Turkey and Kurdish groups in northern Syria, the president’s special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that at least 100 prisoners associated with Islamic State had escaped from detention camps that had been guarded by the Kurds and remained unaccounted for amid the intensified fighting in the region.
Stokols reported from Washington and Bulos from Beirut.
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