President Donald Trump announced yesterday that fugitive Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had died in a raid by United States special forces in northwest Syria, in a major blow to the jihadist group.
Baghdadi killed himself during the raid by detonating a suicide vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel, Trump said in a televised address from the White House. And thousands of miles away in the White House Situation Room, President Donald Trump said he witnessed al-Baghdadi’s end on video in amazement. “As though you were watching a movie,” he said.
The operation occurred in the village of Barisha in Idlib province, about five kilometres (three miles) from the Turkish frontier and close to one of the main border crossings. In extended questions and answers yesterday after announcing the raid, Trump said that Baghdadi had been “under surveillance for a couple of weeks.” “He didn’t die a hero, he died a coward, crying whimpering and screaming,” Trump said.
Trump gave graphic details of the raid, saying as soon as confirmation came in about his location, the raid by special forces swung into motion Saturday. The president said the operation started with eight helicopters flying low in the dark across hostile territory. It ended two hours later with one of the most wanted men in the world cornered by US soldiers, then blowing himself up.
“A large group” took part, with “eight helicopters, and we had many other ships and planes,” Trump said. First, they had to cross hostile territory from a still-undisclosed location into northwest Syria, flying about one hour and 10 minutes.
“We flew very, very low and very, very fast. But it was a big . . . it was a very dangerous part of the mission. Getting in and getting out,” Trump said. “There was a chance that we would have met unbelievable fire,” he said. And when they landed at the targeted compound, “all hell broke loose,” according to Trump.
Continuing, Trump said “a large crew of brilliant fighters ran out of those helicopters and blew holes into the side of the building” to avoid booby traps in any doors.
That “was something really amazing to see,” he said about his experience in the Situation Room, where he was joined by Vice President Mike Pence and senior military and national-security officers. “We watched it so clearly.”
“They were greeted with a lot of firepower,” he said. A “large number” of Baghdadi’s supporters died in the return fire, Trump said, but no US troops. Commanders relayed back their progress, step by step: Eleven children had been taken out alive, they said. Prisoners were being taken. Baghdadi’s wives were dead.
Another report quoted Trump as saying the operation killed nine people, including Baghdadi.
And then came the call everyone was waiting for. “Sir, there’s only one person in the building. We are sure he’s in the tunnel trying to escape but it’s a dead-end tunnel,” Trump recounted being told. It was Baghdadi.
Knowing beforehand that there would be tunnels and that the fugitive was likely wearing a suicide vest, the US forces had brought a robot. But it never got used.
“We were moving too fast,” Trump said. “They were chasing.” Baghdadi had taken three of his children down into the tunnel, Trump said. Their presence wasn’t going to stop the inevitable, though. “It was brutal,” Trump said.