President Trump announced Sunday morning that U.S. special forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a night raid in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, fulfilling “the top national security priority” of the Trump administration in the wake of a Syrian military withdrawal.
“He was vicious and violent, and he died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying,” Trump stated in a White House speech. “. . . Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders, and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS.”
Trump, who watched the operation live from the situation room, hinted at the mission Saturday night, tweeting “Something very big has just happened!” On Sunday, the president suggested that he would support releasing footage of the mission to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda.
The U.S. suffered no serious casualties in the raid on Baghdadi’s compound, while “a large number” of ISIS fighters and Baghdadi’s guards were killed. Attempting to escape, Baghdadi dragged three children into a dead-end tunnel with him, and ultimately detonated an explosive vest — killing himself and the children — rather than allowing himself to be captured.
Despite the tunnel collapsing in the blast, U.S. forces were able to recover Baghdadi’s remains and confirm his identity with a DNA test on-site. The infamous ISIS leader had been incredibly elusive, escaping U.S. capture for years.
“Last night was a great night for the United States and for the World. A brutal killer, one who has caused so much hardship and death, was violently eliminated — he will never again harm another innocent man, woman, or child. He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place,” Trump declared.
The president thanked Iraq, Turkey, Russia, Syria, and the Syrian Kurds for help in the operation. The Kurdish SDF said Sunday that the recent Turkish military offensive in Northern Syria delayed the mission against Baghdadi “by more than a month,” but with the help of Kurdish intelligence, the U.S. confirmed Baghdadi’s location earlier this week. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that Trump was notified of options against Baghdadi last week, and approved of a raid.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov contested Trump’s statement, saying that the Russians did not have “reliable information” on the raid, and that Baghdadi’s death “has absolutely no operational significance on the situation in Syria or on the actions of the remaining terrorists in Idlib.”
News of the raid received mixed reactions on Capitol Hill. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D., Calif.,) criticized the president — who said “some” lawmakers were notified prior to the mission — for not making the “Gang of Eight,” which includes top Republican and Democratic intelligence committee members and congressional leaders, aware of the mission.
“Had this escalated, had something gone wrong, had we gotten into a firefight with the Russians, it’s to the administration’s advantage to be able to say, ‘We informed Congress we were going in, they were aware of the risks. We at least gave them the chance to provide feedback.’ That wasn’t done here. I think that’s a mistake,” Schiff said.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse released a short statement in the wake of the “tremendous news” of Baghdadi’s death.
“The President made the right call to take out this bloodthirsty monster who led ISIS as it raped and pillaged its way through Iraq and Syria. As Americans celebrate this victory, we must remain clear-eyed that this is no time to let off the gas: Baghdadi is gone but another animal will take his place as ISIS works to regroup,” Sasse’s statement read.