President Donald Trump said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead after a U.S. military raid in northern Syria that left the Islamic State leader “in utter fear, in total panic and dread” in his final moments.
“Last night the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist to justice,” Trump said in an announcement in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House.
No U.S. personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of al-Baghdadi’s fighters or companions were killed with him, the president said.
Al-Baghdadi’s body was mutilated after he detonated a suicide vest, but DNA test results provided a positive identification, Trump said.
Al-Baghdadi was the highest-ranking terrorist leader killed or captured since Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 during the Obama administration. The operations by U.S. Special Forces focused on the northwestern province of Idlib, according to one of the people, who asked not to be identified discussing the matter. The U.S. confirmed with biometric tests that al-Baghdadi was killed, Fox News reported, citing an unidentified U.S. military official.
The operation was built on CIA planning, a person familiar with the matter said, denying a report from Iraq that intelligence from that country’s government played a role. Trump didn’t hesitate to give the order to proceed, the person said.
Previous reports that al-Baghdadi had been killed proved to be premature. In April, Islamic State released a video of a man the militant group identified as al-Baghdadi, in what would have been his first appearance in five years. The video was released a month after the militants were driven out of their last stronghold in Syria.
The U.S. operation in Syria appeared to involve cooperation from various forces in the region. Iraq provided “precise information” to coalition forces that “contributed to reaching the terrorist al-Baghdadi and killing him,” the state-run Iraqi News Agency reported, citing an intelligence official it didn’t identify.
The U.S. also informed Turkey before the raid, with a senior Turkish official saying that al-Baghdadi had arrived at the Idlib location 48 hours before the strike. The official wouldn’t confirm whether Turkey had shared intelligence with the U.S. to facilitate the operation, but pledged continue cooperation with allies in the fight against Islamic State.
The death of al-Baghdadi would be a boost to Trump, who’s faced bipartisan criticism after his Oct. 6 announcement that he would pull U.S. forces back in the face of a Turkish military offensive in northern Syria. The move prompted even Republican supporters of Trump to say he was abandoning Kurdish allies of the U.S. who had helped defeat Islamic State’s “caliphate.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces, who led the fight against Islamic State on the ground in Syria, said they were involved in the “successful and effective operation,” and will keep working with global partners in the fight against the terror organization, according to a tweet by SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.
Idlib province, where the raid was conducted, isn’t in the region where U.S. forces were based or withdrew from following Trump’s decision. Instead, it has been a refuge for jihadist forces, many with links to al-Qaeda, that had held off efforts by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military to retake the region. It has increasingly become the focus of Syria’s efforts, backed by Russia, to secure control over the country after more than eight years of civil war.