President Donald Trump said the elusive leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed, dying “like a dog” in a daring night-time raid by US special forces in northwest Syria.
Trump told the nation in a televised address from the White House that US forces killed a “large number” of Islamic State (IS) group militants during the raid, which culminated with Baghdadi cornered in a tunnel, where he detonated a suicide vest.
“He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Trump said, adding that three of Baghdadi’s children were also killed in the blast.
Trump said the raid — involving eight helicopters flying more than an hour from an undisclosed base — was carried out with cooperation from Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. He also thanked the Syrian Kurds “for a certain support they were able to give us”. Special forces “executed a dangerous and daring night-time raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style,” he said.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, described the dramatic message the president and his advisers received as they monitored the raid from the White House Situation Room.
“The commander of the mission called and said, ‘100 percent confidence, Jackpot’ — meaning Baghdadi was dead — O’Brien said. “That was great news.”
At its height, IS controlled swaths of Iraq and Syria in a self-declared caliphate, brutally imposing a puritanical version of Islam. The group planned or inspired terrorism attacks across Europe, while using social media to lure foreign volunteers.
It took years of war, during which IS became notorious for mass executions and sickening hostage beheadings, before its final slice of territory in Syria was seized this March.
Baghdadi’s death gives a big political boost to Trump as he faces an impeachment inquiry and after his abrupt decision to withdraw a small deployment of US forces from Syria raised fears that it would allow IS remnants to regroup and leave Kurdish forces vulnerable to a Turkish invasion.
Trump took a storm of criticism for the move, including from his Republican allies. On Sunday, however, they had little but praise. Several world leaders joined in the approbation, though some added words of caution.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Twitter that it was “a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the raid “an important moment in our fight against terror” but cautioned that the fight was “not yet over.”
An Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei, tweeted that Baghdadi’s death was not the end of IS terror “but just the end of a chapter.”
But Russia raised doubts. “The Defense Ministry does not have reliable information… concerning the umpteenth ‘death’ of Baghdadi,” spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
Baghdadi’s death has been reported several times over the years. Trump said there was no doubt, however, saying a DNA field test had confirmed his identity.
And Defense Secretary Mark Esper — who issued a statement hailing “a great day for America and a great day for the world” — said the raiding team had both visual and DNA confirmation.
In Washington, Democrats commended the intelligence community, the military professionals and the US partners involved but cautioned that the IS threat was not over, particularly after Trump’s decision — since partially reversed — to leave Syria.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi demanded that her chamber be briefed on the raid and on Trump’s broader regional policies, adding that “the Russians, but not top congressional leadership, were notified” in advance.
But Trump seemed to relish delivering the news to the public — after hinting at it in a tweet late Saturday — spending nearly an hour at the podium. “This is the biggest there is,” he said.