Editors note: This story is being updated as new information comes in.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive head of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is dead.
President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that Baghdadi was the target of a U.S. special operations forces raid in Syria on Saturday and killed himself, confirming Defense One‘s original reporting.
U.S. intelligence and special operations forces had been tracking Baghdadi for weeks to a location in northwest Syria, Trump said. The raid began with eight helicopters flying low and fast to a compound with underground tunnels. In unusually frank and gruesome detail, Trump recounted how U.S. operators chased Baghdadi into a dead-end tunnel where he detonated his vest, killing himself and three of his children.
“They were led to certain death. They reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast,” the president said.
Baghdadi died, Trump said, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”
Several other ISIS fighters were also killed and captured in the mission, Trump said. There were no casualties among the U.S. troops, who were in the compound for about two hours, he said.
“These savage monsters will not escape their fate and they will not escape the final judgment of God,” he said.
Top national-security priority?
Said Trump, ”Capturing or killing Baghdadi has been the top national security priority of my administration.”
There is no evidence for this. Trump has never said this in public, according to a Factba.se search, nor tweeted it. Baghdadi’s name appears only once before today on the White House site: a mention in the 2017 State of the Union introducing his order to keep open the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. His lone tweet mentioning the ISIS leader sprang from a disputed Fox News report.
Public-facing Pentagon documents mention Baghdadi’s name a dozen times in passing since Trump became president; it does not appear in the National Defense Strategy.
A mention of the ISIS leader’s name was elicited in a March press conference with the U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition. Amb. James Jeffrey was asked: ”Do you have any update on the whereabouts of Baghdadi, and to what extent is it a priority to do the man-hunting now?” He responded, ”No, we don’t know where he is, and finding the top leadership of ISIS or other terrorist groups is always a priority.”
Watching the raid
Trump said he watched the raid unfold from the White House Situation Room with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Vice President Mike Pence, and other unnamed “generals.” Trump described with marvel the clarity of the picture ”as if you were watching a movie” and the performance of U.S. top special operators. He said he heard Baghdadi screaming.
“When he blew himself up, the tunnel collapsed,” he said.
One dog was injured in the blast. A robot was available but was not used, he said. “We were moving too fast.”
As they approached, U.S. forces returned incoming fire, killed ground fighters from the air, Trump said. They went in through a side door because the front door was believed to be booby trapped. Two of Baghdadi’s wives were killed by U.S. forces before they could detonate their own suicide vests, he said. Their bodies were carefully removed.
Trump said U.S. lab technicians were brought on the mission and tested Baghdadi’s DNA on site after he blew himself up. “They have his DNA,” Trump said, adding that pieces of his body were “brought back” along with sensitive information.
The mission follows two weeks of major Trump policy shifts on Syria, starting with the president’s abrupt Oct. 8 decision to pull U.S. forces out of northern Syria after Turkey said it would invade in pursuit of Kurdish forces. Turkish armored forces quickly moved on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, killing hundreds of fighters and an unknown number of civilians, the SDF claims. Trump was accused by critics globally of abandoning the SDF, who had done the vast majority of fighting against ISIS to retake territory across Syria.
After two days of fighting, Turkey agreed to give the SDF five days to evacuate a 20-mile-wide border zone, and negotiated a patrol agreement with Russian and Syrian regime forces. That ceasefire was made permanent on Wednesday, but the SDF has alleged that Turkish and Russian forces have continued to attack their positions.
Trump said that none of the events of the past few weeks interfered with the mission to find Baghdadi.
Iraqi officials have claimed that they provided intelligence to the United States about Baghdadi’s location. Trump said the SDF also provided “helpful” information but the raid was carried out solely by U.S. forces. Russia was asked in advance to clear the airspace and complied, Trump said, without knowing the full purpose of the mission.
The president said the United States will continue to pursue “the remaining ISIS terrorists to their brutal end,” and other terrorist groups. He then recounted ISIS’s bloody trail of the past four years: ”They are likewise in our sights. Baghdadi and the losers who work for him —and losers they are, they had no idea what they were getting into — in some cases they were very frightened puppies, in other cases they were hard-core killers. But they killed many, many people. Their murder of innocent Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller were especially heinous. The shocking publicized murder of Jordanian pilot, a wonderful young man…he was burned alive in a cage for all to see, on the execution of Christians in Libya and Egypt, as well as the genocidal mass murder of Yazidis ranked ISIS among the most depraved organizations [in] the history of our world.”
“The forced religious conversions, the orange suits prior to many beheadings, all of which were openly displayed for the world – this was all Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s work. He was vicious and violent, and he died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying,” Trump said, reading his prepared statement.
Unusual detail about special operations
Trump’s White House statement, and the following press conference, was an unusual way to disclose the operation. Previously, those details would come from Pentagon officials and spokespeople taking care to not reveal operational details of Joint Special Operations Command and intelligence methods.
“Something very big has just happened!” President Donald Trump tweeted at 9:23 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Joseph Votel, the former Army four-star who led U.S. Central Command until March, said in a statement: “This is an important milestone — not just for the campaign but especially for the families and communities who Baghdadi victimized through his leadership of ISIS. All credit goes to the men and women who orchestrated this successful mission. President Trump deserves credit for making the decision to execute — these types of operations come with a lot of risk, and he accepted all that. I don’t think it means the end of ISIS; these organizations are resilient and we have to keep the pressure on them, but this was an important operation. I don’t think it means the end of problems in Syria either; that will have to be done through a political process.”
Bradley Peniston contributed to this report.