U.S. special forces killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a nighttime raid in northwest Syria, President Donald Trump said on Sunday.
The notorious ISIS leader was targeted in an operation on a compound in Barisha, a village in Idlib province about 5 km (3.1 miles) from the Syria-Turkey border.
A number of others were also killed in the raid on the compound, which the U.S. had been surveilling for some time, Trump said, but declined to say how many. “More dead than alive,” he said.
American operators traversed “very dangerous” airspace by helicopter for an hour and ten minutes before landing and blasting an entryway into the structure, according to Trump.
Trump said eight helicopters were involved in the operation, which lasted some two hours.
U.S. operators “took highly sensitive intelligence and information from the raid,” the president said.
Trump claimed Baghdadi fled into a tunnel with three of his children, who died when he detonated a suicide vest. Other women and children in the compound were removed and are uninjured, Trump said.
Trump would not say where U.S. forces were deployed from, but praised Russia for allowing the raid to pass over Syrian territory where Russia “had a lot of firepower.”
“Getting in and getting out, we took an identical route.”
“Russia was great. They opened up,” Trump said, adding that the Syrian Democratic Forces also provided intelligence used in the operation.
No U.S. operators were hurt in the raid, though one canine was injured, according to the president.
Trump said the operation had been in planning for some two weeks. “We had him scoped,” he said, adding that Baghdadi had been shuttling from location to location.
The operation was first reported late Saturday, October 26 by Newsweek, which said the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command’s Delta Team raided a location that had been under surveillance for some time.
It was unclear how long Baghdadi had been in Idlib, much of which is controlled by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, not known to be an ally of Islamic State. His location had been the subject of fierce speculation for years and there were multiple false reports of his death.
Video posted to social media purported to show gunfire after American Delta Forces landed by helicopter around 11 p.m. local time (2100 GMT).
Tonight's activities according to Syrian sources: Around 11 PM local time, locals began hearing drone movement, helicopter gunships & bombing of Barisha, Idlib. The area have several HQs of militant groups who use the proximity to the border w/ Turkey to reduce risk of attack. pic.twitter.com/oUZ2uBTjgi
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) October 27, 2019
Other images showed that the compound in which the ISIS leader was hiding was nearly completely leveled.
Turkey’s defense ministry said Sunday that it was informed of the operation ahead of time.
Syrian Democratic Forces commander General Mazlum Abdi credited “joint intelligence work” with the U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State for the operation, saying there was coordination over a number of months to monitor Baghdadi’s whereabouts.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria on October 13, a decision which has been partially reversed so American troops can “secure the oil,” according to Trump.
“The pullout had nothing to do with this” operation, Trump said. “We found this out at a similar time.”
The Coalition referred all questions to the Department of Defense, which referred them to the White House.
Baghdadi, believed to be 47 or 48-years-old, was born in Iraq. He formed the jihadist group Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaah after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He was captured by U.S. forces in February 2004 and briefly detained at both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca before being released later that year.
After joining Iraq’s al-Qaeda franchise in 2006 he rose through the ranks and eventually took the helm in 2010, expanding into Syria in the midst of that country’s war in 2013.
In 2014, ISIS overran much of Syria and neighboring Iraq and Baghdadi appeared in a video that summer announcing a “caliphate” in regions they controlled.
At the height of ISIS rule, Baghdadi held sway over millions people in the cross-border proto-state the size of Great Britain, where ISIS implemented its brutal version of Islamic law. It was blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians and accused of war crimes.
But several offensives in both countries whittled down that territory, and in March the U.S.-backed SDF ousted ISIS from its last patch of territory in Baghuz in eastern Syria.
In April, Baghdadi appeared in an ISIS propaganda video, his first appearance in five years.
With reporting from AFP