WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that a daring U.S. commando raid in Syria this weekend culminated in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, after a five-year international manhunt, claiming a significant victory even as American forces are pulling out of the area.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Mr. Trump said in an unusual morning nationally televised address from the White House. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
Trump said al-Baghdadi was chased to the end of an underground tunnel, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” as he was pursued by American military dogs. Accompanied by three children, al-Baghdadi then detonated a suicide vest, blowing up himself and the children, Trump said.
The death of al-Baghdadi may be a signal moment in the generation-long war against terrorists as well as in Trump’s presidency, eliminating a ruthless enemy who beheaded American captives and at one time controlled a swath of the Middle East roughly the size of Britain. But terrorist leaders have been killed before without ending the war, and it remained unclear what effect his death would have on the Islamic State at a time it has already lost its territorial holdings.
Trump nonetheless reveled in the moment, using boastful and provocative language unlike the more solemn tone typically adopted by presidents in such moments. He repeated the word “whimpering” six times and made a point of repeatedly portraying al-Baghdadi as “sick and depraved” and his followers as “losers” and “frightened puppies.”
“He died like a dog,” Trump said. “He died like a coward.”
His vivid account, however, quickly came into question. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who monitored the raid along with Trump in the Situation Room on Saturday, said he knew nothing about any “whimpering,” and other officials said it was not possible to hear anything like that on the overhead drone feed the president watched. But Esper and other officials said Trump might have gotten that detail from commanders on the ground.
The raid came at a time when Washington has been roiled by an impeachment battle putting Trump’s presidency in jeopardy as well as a storm of criticism over his decision to pull most U.S. forces out of Syria. Rather than create a moment when a polarized city came together, the successful raid simply fueled the debates consuming the capital.
Indeed, while he tipped off a couple of Republican senators, Trump made a point of refusing to inform House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or other Democratic leaders in advance of the raid, as is customary, saying they could not be trusted not to leak, even though he said he notified Russia beforehand.
Trump was clearly eager to claim credit for the raid even as it became clear that military commanders had to rush the operation to execute it while sufficient U.S. troops were still in place. While he used the occasion to defend his withdrawal decision, critics said the raid actually reinforced the need for an American military presence in the region.
“We must keep in mind that we were able to strike Baghdadi because we had forces in the region,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla. and a former Army Green Beret. “We must keep ISIS from returning by staying on offense.”
The timing also highlighted again the American alliance with Syrian Kurdish forces, who helped the United States fight the Islamic State over the past five years and were providing intelligence critical to the success of the raid even as Trump effectively abandoned them by withdrawing troops and allowing Turkey to invade.
“For five months there has been joint intel cooperation on the ground and accurate monitoring, until we achieved a joint operation to kill Abu Bakir al-Bagdadi,” Mazloum Abdi, the general commander of the Kurdish fighters known as the Syrian Defense Forces, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “Thanks to everybody who participate in this great mission,” he added, including the president’s Twitter handle, @realDonaldTrump.
Trump said he had no second thoughts about his plan to withdraw. “We don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years,” he said. “They’ve been fighting for hundreds of years. We’re out.” But he made an exception for oil supplies, saying he would leave troops to guard them. “Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight,” he said.
The discovery of al-Baghdadi’s location came after the arrest and interrogation of one of al-Baghdadi’s wives and a courier this summer, two U.S. officials said. The location surprised his American pursuers because it was deep inside a part of northwestern Syria controlled by archrival al-Qaida groups.
Armed with that initial tip, the CIA worked closely with Kurdish intelligence officials in Iraq and Syria to identify al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts and to put spies in place to monitor his periodic movements.
Delta Force commandos, ferried by eight helicopters through hostile airspace, were fired on when they landed and entered the target compound by blowing a hole through the wall rather than take a chance on a booby-trapped main entrance, Trump said. No Americans were killed in the operation, although two were injured, as was a military dog.
Trump said that American troops did “an on-site test” of DNA to confirm al-Baghdadi’s identity and that they brought back “body parts” when leaving the scene. Other officials said the tunnel partially collapsed in the explosion, making it hard to gather the remains. Trump said two women were found there wearing suicide vests that did not detonate but were killed on the scene, and he said 11 children were taken unharmed.
Trump was so eager to trumpet the news that he posted a cryptic message on Twitter on Saturday night teasing his Sunday morning announcement, getting ahead of the forensics. A Defense Department official said that with any other president, the Pentagon would wait for absolute certainty before announcing victory, but Trump was impatient to get the news out.
With impeachment investigators bearing down, Trump appeared intent on claiming credit for the raid, engaging in a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters after his statement as he personally walked them through the details, promoted his own role and compared himself favorably to past presidents.
The White House released a photograph of Trump surrounded by top advisers on Saturday in the Situation Room, where he monitored the raid on al-Baghdadi’s hideout in Syria, much like the famed image of President Barack Obama watching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. In his comments to reporters, Trump even seemed to suggest that killing al-Baghdadi was a bigger deal than killing bin Laden.
Al-Baghdadi never occupied the same place in the American psyche as bin Laden, but proved to be a tenacious and dangerous enemy of the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
The son of a sheepherder from Iraq, al-Baghdadi, 48, was arrested by occupying U.S. forces in 2004 and emerged radicalized from 11 months of captivity, eventually assembling a potent terrorist force that overtook al-Qaida and imposed a virulent form of Islam on millions of people in Iraq and Syria.
His Islamic State was formed out of the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq, a deadly radical Sunni group founded in the early years of the Iraq War by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. In June 2006, al-Zarqawi was killed in a safe house by American bombs, but his group continued its devastating violence in Iraq, and the civil war worsened over the next year.
As the deaths of both bin Laden and al-Zarqawi showed, even spectacular raids against high-profile targets do not end the threat of terrorists either in the region or at home.
“The danger here is that President Trump decides once again to shift focus away from ISIS now that its leader is dead,” said Jennifer Cafarella, the research director for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “Unfortunately, killing leaders does not defeat terrorist organizations. We should have learned that lesson after killing Osama bin Laden, after which al-Qaida continued to expand globally.”
Al-Baghdadi’s death could set off a succession struggle among top Islamic State leaders. Anticipating his own death, al-Baghdadi delegated authorities to regional and functional lieutenants to ensure that Islamic State operations would continue.
“There are few publicly well-recognized candidates to potentially replace al-Baghdadi,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, who tracks militant websites at the New York security consulting firm Flashpoint Global Partners.
Kohlmann said the next most prominent public figure from within the Islamic State is its current official spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, an enigma himself whose exact pedigree is still unclear. The leader of a Syrian Kurdish militia and a Syrian activist reported Sunday that al-Muhajir had also been killed in a separate attack, but U.S. officials could not immediately confirm those reports.
The raid on al-Baghdadi took place in Idlib province, hundreds of miles from the area along the Syrian-Iraqi border where he had been believed to be hiding, according to senior officials. Counterterrorism experts expressed surprise that al-Baghdadi was hiding in an area dominated by al-Qaida groups so far from his strongholds.
However, the Islamic State has extensively penetrated Idlib province since the fall of Raqqa, its stronghold in northeastern Syria, in late 2017. The U.S. operation on Saturday took place in a smuggling area near the Turkish border where numerous ISIS foreign fighters have most likely traversed, Cafarella said.
“It could be that he believed the chaos of Idlib would provide him with the cover he needed to blend in among hordes of jihadists and other rebels,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a research organization for global security issues.
But there was also a more ominous explanation of his presence in Idlib, the possibility of “resumed negotiations between him and al-Qaida leaders for reunification and/or a collaboration with al-Qaida elements on attacks against the West,” Cafarella said.
In announcing the raid, Trump put himself in the center of the action, describing himself as personally hunting al-Baghdadi since the early days of his administration. He said he monitored the action on Saturday with Esper; Vice President Mike Pence; Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and others through a live feed in the Situation Room “as though you were watching a movie.”
Unlike previous presidents announcing such operations, Trump ended his national address by taking questions from reporters. He made a point of thanking Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq for their cooperation and said Kurdish forces provided “information that turned out to be helpful.”
By contrast, he described America’s traditional European allies as “a tremendous disappointment,” repeating his complaint that they have not agreed to take captured Islamic State fighters who originated from their countries.
Officials later disputed the president’s assertion that Russia gave permission to cross airspace that its forces control. A U.S. official who also asked not to be named said Russia was simply informed that the aircraft would be flying through the airspace and that it was “ridiculous” for the president to say permission was requested.
For its part, the Russian government denied giving any permission and suggested the entire operation may have been made up. The “contradictory details” of the account “raise legitimate questions and doubts about its reality and all the more its success,” a Defense Ministry spokesman told Russian news media.
In announcing the raid, Trump cited victims of the Islamic State by name, and afterward he called the families of four Americans kidnapped and killed. Three of them, including journalist James Foley, were beheaded in gruesome propaganda videos. A fourth, Kayla Mueller, was killed under murky circumstances.
Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, said she urged the president to bring two captives suspected of abducting and torturing her son to the United States to face prosecution in federal court.
The raid could help Trump with at least some hawkish Republican lawmakers who had broken with him over his Syria pullback decision.
Trump invited Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., usually a strong ally who had been the most outspoken critic of his Syria decision, to join him for the speech on Sunday morning and then sent Graham to brief reporters from the lectern in the White House briefing room, an unusual spectacle for a lawmaker.
Graham called the raid “a game changer in the war on terror,” while adding that “the war is by no means over.” He said Trump had reassured him on his concerns. “The president’s determination over time has paid off,” Graham said. “We don’t give him enough credit for destroying the caliphate.”
He added: “This is a moment when President Trump’s worst critics should say, ‘Well done, Mr. President.’”
Democrats were not quick to take the advice. Former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader; and other Democrats released statements praising the military and intelligence officials involved in the raid without mentioning Trump.
Pelosi said the president was wrong to keep congressional leaders in the dark. “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,” she said in a statement.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif. and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who is leading the impeachment inquiry, said “good riddance” to “a bloodthirsty killer,” calling the raid “an important victory.” But he said the success of the raid did not absolve Trump of the decision to abandon the Kurds by pulling out.
“It’s a disastrous mistake to betray the Kurds this way,” he said. “I think it just improves the Russian position in the Middle East, something they desperately want.”