President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that the leader of the so-called Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in an overnight U.S. military operation in Syria, delivering a major blow to the terrorist group even as American forces withdraw from the area.
“He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place,” Trump said in a grisly Sunday morning address to the nation.
Baghdadi died after running into the end of a tunnel, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” as he was chased by American military dogs, Trump said. Accompanied by three young children, Baghdadi then ignited his suicide vest, killing himself and all three children, the president said.
The ISIS leader was targeted near Barisha, Syria. American forces used eight helicopters through airspace controlled by Russia and Turkey. No Americans were killed in the raid, but Trump said one of the military dogs was injured.
“Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders,” Trump said. “He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone.”
The death of Baghdadi, who was a dangerous enemy of the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East, brings an end to a yearslong international manhunt that spanned two U.S. presidential administrations.
Baghdadi, 48, was arrested by occupying American forces in 2004 and was detained at the Abu Ghraib prison before joining Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He has led ISIS since 2010. He was last seen alive in a video in April, in which he sat cross-legged on the ground and praised the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks against churches in Sri Lanka.
Trump said that an on-site DNA test confirmed Baghdadi’s death just 15 minutes after he was killed, and that American troops brought back “body parts” from the scene. The ISIS leader’s death has been incorrectly reported several times in previous years.
The military operation comes after Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw troops from Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish military operation against the Kurds, who fought alongside the U.S. to defeat the Islamic State.
For Trump, the operation against Baghdadi is a significant victory in the battle against the Islamic State, as well as a counterpoint against critics that have condemned him for withdrawing the troops from Syria.
Though Baghdadi’s death is a success for the U.S. and its allies, the deaths of past terrorist leaders leaders have not led to total victory. Former President Barack Obama ordered a raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, but the terrorist group managed to reconstitute itself and gain a foothold in Syria.
Counterterrorism experts warn that the Islamic State is still a threat, given that there are several candidates that could replace Baghdadi after his death.
The Islamic State took advantage of Syria’s long-running civil war and sectarian divisions in Iraq to conquer a large swath of territory in both countries, knitting together a de-facto state that at one point was as large as the U.K.
The terrorist group’s rapid gains in 2014 took Western powers by surprise. It used that territory as a springboard to launch devastating attacks in Paris in 2015, which killed 130 people, and in Brussels in 2016, which left 32 dead.
A U.S.-led military coalition, which began operations under the Obama administration, dismantled the terrorist group’s de-facto state, retaking its capital of Raqqa in 2017.
Baghdadi, however, was able to escape death or capture until the military raid ordered by Trump.
“We don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years,” Trump told reporters after his address. “We’re out, but we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil,” adding that he’s interested in making a deal with ExxonMobil or another energy company to tap Syrian oil reserves.
Some critics argue that the operation was a success despite Trump’s decision to withdraw troops, and that the raid confirmed the importance of maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria.
The president said he did not notify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the Baghdadi operation because Washington is a “leaking machine.” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff were also not informed. Trump did speak with Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Richard Burr.
Schiff, who is leading the impeachment inquiry into Trump, called the raid an “important victory” but condemned the president for not notifying the so-called Gang of Eight congressional leaders, who are traditionally briefed on classified intelligence matters. He also criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
“It’s a disastrous mistake to betray the Kurds this way,” Schiff said on Sunday. “I think it just improves the Russian position in the Middle East, something they desperately want. I vehemently disagree with what the president said that the Russians love having us there.”
Unlike previous presidents who have announced such operations, Trump ended the national address by taking a round of questions from reporters. He said only U.S. forces were involved in the operation, but thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq for their cooperation and said that Syrian Kurdish forces provided “information that turned out to be helpful.”
Syrian Kurdish forces claimed on Sunday that they participated in the operation. Kurdish commander Mazloum Abdi tweeted: “Successful historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on ABC News that special operations forces were on the ground for more than two hours, with less than 100 U.S. forces deployed in the raid.