U.S. special forces have killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS, during an operation in the Idlib province of Syria, Donald Trump said on Sunday—a remarkable victory for the president who has been embroiled in controversy for his foreign policy decisions in the region.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist to justice,” Trump said at a much-hyped scheduled address. “His body was mutilated by the blast.” He then said that American officials were able to nevertheless positively identify Baghdadi immediately using portable DNA testing equipment they brought with them.
Trump described how special forces executed a “dangerous and daring night time raid” in which American military dogs chased and cornered Baghdadi in a closed tunnel where he detonated his suicide vest killing himself and three of his young children he had with him. Trump said he watched the entire mission. “It was just like a movie,” he said.
“He died like a dog,” Trump said. “He was whimpering, screaming, crying. He died like a coward.”
The president said the successful mission was much more important than even the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden. “Bin Laden was big, but this was bigger,” he boasted.
Trump then thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq along with Syrian Kurds for “certain support they were able to give us.” Trump elaborated on informing Russians present in Syria. “We spoke to the Russians, we told them we were coming in. They said thank you for telling us,” he said, adding that he didn’t tell them why, only that “you are going to be very happy.”
“We notified some [and] others are being notified now as I speak,” Trump said. “Washington is a leaking machine. The only people that knew were the few people that I dealt with.”
Trump said he didn’t inform House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ahead of time. A House intelligence committee official told the Daily Beast as the President spoke, “We have not received any notification or briefing.” Adam Schiff, Trump’s foil atop the House intelligence committee, did not receive any briefing on the raid in any venue, according to the official.
The president said that the operation started more than a week earlier. “We had him scoped,” he said, describing how Baghdadi changed his mind. “He tends to change on a dime,” he said, detailing how they had to cancel several missions before locking in on him.
“They were greeted with a lot of fire power,” he said of Baghdadi’s entourage. “Many of his people were killed. We lost nobody. Think of that. It’s incredible.”
Trump said the special forces left 11 children present at the time of the raid with a caretaker and captured some of the fighters who had tried to protect the terrorist leader. He said special forces spent about two hours at the site gathering evidence and then “landed at a very friendly port in a friendly country.”
The president also expresseddisappointment with several European nationswho have so far refused to repatriate ISIS fighters captured and being held in Syria. “The U.S. tax payer isn’t going to pay to look after other countries’ ISIS fighters,” he said, implying they might be freed from detention.
Trump had hinted at the news late Saturday as Twitter erupted with reports of a heavy gun battle and sounds of helicopters in an area of Idlib known to house the headquarters of militant groups.
“Something very big has just happened,” Trump tweeted cryptically.
As White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley announced a “major statement” to be made by Trump early Sunday, Newsweek cited a U.S. Army source saying Baghdadi had been killed in a special operations raid in Idlib approved by Trump a week earlier.
A US military source not cleared to talk to reporters told The Daily Beast the military had prepared for the Idlib raid for approximately a week. The Army special forces unit who conducted the raid were told their quarry was Baghdadi, the source said.
The Department of Defense was quoted as saying officials had “high confidence” of the terrorist leader’s death but that verification was still pending.
The raid, carried out by members of a team from the Joint Special Operations Command, came after the area had already been under surveillance for a while, according to Newsweek.
The elusive ISIS leader—wanted by U.S. coalition forces, Iran and Russia—had managed to dodge capture for years and the world only caught a glimpse of him twice since he declared ISIS a global caliphate in 2014: once in a video of his sermon from Mosul in 2014, and again earlier this year in an 18-minute video to supporters in which he portrayed the group’s mounting military defeats as a sign the world was waging war against Islam.
Baghdadi had been reported dead several times in the past only to resurface again and his whereabouts have long been unknown, though he was generally believed not to be in Idlib, a stronghold of rival jihadi groups.
The announcement of his death comes as Trump has sought to fend off scrutiny amid an impeachment inquiry over claims he withheld military aid to Ukraine in a bid to force the country to investigate his political rivals. He has also faced heavy criticism—from both Republicans and Democrats—for his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria, a move which sparked fears of a resurgence by ISIS and paved the way for Turkey to attack Washington’s Kurdish allies.