U.S. special operations forces killed the the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a raid in northwestern Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump announced Sunday from the White House.
The self-declared caliph of ISIS detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three children after he was cornered in a tunnel. “The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.” No U.S. personnel were lost in the raid, Trump said.
“Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations,” he said.
The death of Baghdadi, long considered the most wanted man in the world, came amid weeks of acrimonious debate in Washington about the U.S. role in Syria after Trump’s efforts to remove troops from the region. The abrupt withdrawal allowed scores of ISIS prisoners to escape and could allow the rebirth of an Islamic State sanctuary.
The raid was launched from Iraqi territory. “This raid was impeccable and could only have taken place with the acknowledgment and help of certain other nations and people,” he said. “I want to thank the nations of Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, and I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us.
After years of rare and unconfirmed sightings, Baghdadi resurfaced in an unverified video in April, rallying his followers in Iraq and Syria following the group’s loss of its so-called caliphate.
The U.S. had placed a $25 million bounty on the ISIS leader’s head.
Russia in June 2017 claimed to have killed Baghdadi in an airstrike on Raqqah, Syria. A month later, reports of his death again surfaced, this time from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Baghdadi is believed to have been born in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq. He was as a cleric in a Baghdad mosque during the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Baghdadi become the leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq faction in 2010. In 2014, Baghdadi declared the Islamic State a global caliphate from the Al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, in what is his only known public appearance as the leader of the terrorist organization.
The daring raid was hailed a major victory in the fight against Islamic terrorism.
“It’s tremendous news that the U.S. has ended Baghdadi’s bloody jihad,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and member of the intelligence committee. “The President made the right call to take out this bloodthirsty monster who led ISIS as it raped and pillaged its way through Iraq and Syria.”
But he also warned about letting up the pressure. “As Americans celebrate this victory, we must remain clear-eyed that this is no time to let off the gas: Baghdadi is gone but another animal will take his place as ISIS works to regroup.”
“Removing the leadership of terrorist groups IS not on its own a decisive win. It never has been,” said Eric Robinson, a former defense official who served in intelligence and special operations positions until last year.
“Saying that the caliphate is going to crumple as a result of this is just wrong. It will endure.”
Trump used unusually vivid, even gory, language in describing al-Baghdadi’s final moments — words that some regional experts feared could anger Islamist extremists in the region even more.
The terrorist leader was “crying, whimpering and screaming” as he ran with three children into a dead-end tunnel, Trump said. Baghdadi ignited a suicide vest that killed him and the children, and it collapsed the tunnel. A DNA test confirmed Baghdadi’s identity, Trump added.
Trump likened Baghdadi to a “dog.“ U.S. canines helped hunt him down, the president said.
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said, adding at one point that he would support making public Baghdadi’s final moments.
Dana Shell Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, warned that being so descriptive could backfire by stoking more anger toward the United States.
She pointed out that former U.S. President Barack Obama was far more careful in describing al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden’s killing. The Obama administration even pointed out that it gave bin Laden’s body an Islamic funeral ritual before slipping it into the ocean.
“It was important for our relationships in the region and safety of our military and diplomats,” the former ambassador wrote on Twitter. “It’s how America rolls. With honor. We don’t delight in death like the terrorists do.”
This story has been updated. The report first appeared on politico.com on Oct. 27, 2019.