WASHINGTON, D.C. — Elite commandos from the Army’s Delta Force led a nighttime raid in northwest Syria over the weekend, which led to the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the Islamic State group. Al-Baghdadi presided over a global terror campaign and became arguably the world’s most wanted man. He died after U.S. special operators cornered him during a raid in Syria and he killed himself with a suicide vest, President Donald Trump said Sunday.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Trump announced at the White House, providing graphic details of al-Baghdadi’s final moments at the helm of the militant organization. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
In a national address, Trump described the nighttime airborne raid in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, with American special operations forces flying over heavily militarized territory controlled by multiple nations and forces. No U.S. troops were killed in the operation, Trump said.
The death of al-Baghdadi was a milestone in the fight against ISIS, which brutalized swaths of Syria and Iraq and sought to direct a global campaign from a self-declared “caliphate.” A years-long campaign by American and allied forces led to the recapture of the group’s territorial holding, but its violent ideology has continued to inspire attacks.
As U.S. troops bore down on al-Baghdadi, he fled into a “dead-end” tunnel with three of his children, Trump said, and detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and the children. “He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said. “He died like a dog; he died like a coward.”
Al-Baghdadi’s identity was confirmed by a DNA test conducted onsite, Trump said.
Delta Force, which is formally known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, is garrisoned at Fort Bragg. The size of the unit is classified. The force is tasked primarily with missions against high-value targets involving counter-terrorism and hostage rescue. The unit’s successful missions include missions in Central America and the Middle East, where they were allegedly responsible for the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay.
Two Islamic State fighters were captured during the raid, according to Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two adult males are being held in a “secure location.”
Planning for the operation began weeks ago, Trump said, after the U.S. gained intelligence on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. Eight military helicopters flew for more than an hour over territory controlled by Russian and Syrian forces, Trump said, before landing under gunfire at the compound.
Trump vividly described the raid and took extensive questions from reporters for more than 45 minutes Sunday. He said U.S. forces breached the walls of the building because the doors were booby-trapped and chased al-Baghdadi into the tunnel, which partially collapsed after al-Baghdadi detonated the suicide vest. Many homes in Syria, which has been riven by civil war since 2011, have subterranean tunnels or shelters from the fighting.
Trump also revealed that U.S. forces spent roughly two hours on the ground collecting valuable intelligence. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday that the U.S.-led Coalition launched at least one airstrike in western Aleppo aimed at Abu Hassan al-Muhajer, an aide to al-Baghdadi.
Trump said he watched the operation from the White House Situation room as it played out live “as though you were watching a movie.” Trump suggested he may order the release of the video so that the world knows al-Baghdadi did not die a hero and spent his final moments “crying,” “whimpering” and “screaming.”
Trump approved the operation Saturday morning after receiving “actionable intelligence,” Vice President Mike Pence told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Trump said he did not follow convention in informing leaders on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., before the raid, saying he was fearful of leaks.
Pelosi said the House “must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top congressional leadership were notified of in advance, and on the administration’s overall strategy in the region.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the mission was to capture or kill the ISIS leader. While Trump had initially said no Americans were injured, Esper said two service members suffered minor injuries but have already returned to duty.
Esper and Milley spoke Monday at a Pentagon news conference where Esper called al-Baghdadi’s death a “devastating blow” to an organization that already had lost its hold on a wide swath of territory in Syria and Iraq. Milley said the U.S. had disposed of al-Baghdadi’s remains “appropriately” and in line with the laws of armed conflict.
A U.S. military dog that was slightly injured in the raid has recovered and is back at work, Milley said.
Esper hinted at uncertainty ahead in Syria, even though the Islamic State has lost its inspirational leader, with the Syrian government exploiting support from Russia and Iran.
“The security situation in Syria remains complex,” Esper said.