The United States military conducted a special operations raid targeting one of its most high-value targets, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Newsweek reported. President Donald Trump approved the mission nearly a week before it took place.
Amid reports Saturday of U.S. military helicopters over the Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, a senior Pentagon official familiar with the operation and Army official briefed on the matter told Newsweek that Baghdadi was the target of the top-secret operation in the last bastion of the country’s Islamist-dominated opposition, a faction that has clashed with ISIS in recent years.
The following morning, President Trump shared with the American people details of the U.S. military operation in a nearly 50-minute live press conference in which he described the operation, Baghdadi’s purported last moments, and answered journalists’ questions about the raid and his strategy.
It was a contrast to the statement from former President Obama when he announced the operation that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, which was about nine minutes and contained few details about the operation. He took no questions from the media. In fact, he described the operation in five sentences:
Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
In contrast, Trump gave a detailed description of the raid, what he purportedly saw and heard while watching the operation from the Situation Room, details of al-Baghdadi’s death, and answered numerous questions.
“He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering, crying, and screaming all the way. The compound had been cleared by this time with people either surrendering or being shot and killed. Eleven young children were moved out of the house and are uninjured. The only ones remaining were Baghdadi in the tunnel,” he said.
“He had dragged three of his young children with him. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel, as our dogs chased them down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast, the tunnel had caved in on it in addition. Test results gave certain, immediate, and totally positive identification. It was him,” he continued.
“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, and total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him. We were in the compound for approximately two hours, and after the mission was accomplished we took highly sensitive material and information from the raid. Much having to do with ISIS origins, future plans, things that we very much want,” he said.
Trump also talked about the details leading up to the raid, telling reporters al-Baghdadi was under surveillance for a couple of weeks before, shedding insight into U.S. intelligence capabilities.
“We knew about where he was going, where he was heading. We had very good information that he was going to another location. He did not go,” he said. “Two or three efforts were canceled because he decided to change his mind, constantly changing his mind.”
He said finally they saw he was held up in a compound — which U.S. intelligence knew a lot about.
“We knew it had tunnels. The tunnels were dead ends for the most part. There was one we think wasn’t, and we had that covered just in case,” he said.
He described the breach of the compound.
“When we landed with eight helicopters, a large crew of brilliant fighters ran out of those helicopters and blew holes into the side of the building, not wanting to go through the main door because that was booby-trapped,” he said.
“They blasted their way through the house in a very heavy wall. It took them literally seconds. By the time those things went off they had a beautiful big hole and they got everyone by surprise.” He said 11 children were taken into custody. He also said that a number of adults died, and some were taken into custody. He said the number of those killed would be announced soon.
Trump said the flight to the compound took about an hour and 10 minutes, including travel over dangerous territory. He said the aircraft took gunfire coming in, which was “immediately terminated.”
“Meaning, they were shot from the airships,” he said.
He described al-Baghdadi’s last moments.
“He died like a dog, he died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming, and crying,” he said.
Trump also revealed that a canine was involved in the operation, and was hurt in the tunnel, but was evacuated. “A beautiful dog, a talented dog, was injured and brought back.”
He said the raid began at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday. “The liftoff started moments after that.”
Trump also described efforts to identify al-Baghdad after his death.
“They went in with lab technicians,” he said. “They brought body parts back with them. There was not much left. The vest blew up. They did an on-site test and it was a very quick call that took place about 15 minutes after he was killed and it was positive.”
Trump also revealed there were two wives with Baghdadi who were killed. He said they were wearing vests that did not detonate, making it difficult for U.S. forces.
He also revealed there was a robot that went into the tunnel. “We had a robot just in case because we were afraid he had a suicide vest on and if you get close to him and he blows it up, he’s going to die. He had a very powerful suicide vest.”
He said back in the situation room, he and the team were getting full reports literally on a minute-by-minute basis.
“They gave us a report: ‘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’…when he blew himself up the tunnel collapsed on top of everything and his children. So he led his three children to death.”
He talked about the uncertainty of the situation as it was unfolding.
We weren’t 100 percent sure about the tunnel being dead-ended. It’s possible there could have been an escape hatch somewhere along we didn’t know about. So we moved very, very quickly. These people, they were moving — they were chasing.”
Like Osama bin Laden, Al-Baghdadi was no longer the functional leader of his Islamic terror group by the time we hunted him down, but there is an important difference. While Al-Baghdadi had handed down operational control, he remained the Caliph.
As such, the entire basis for the Islamic State and its alliances depended on him. Now he’s dead and the Caliphate may be gone with him. Abdullah Qardash, the man Baghdadi had appointed to replace him while heading ISIS, is now, in theory, in charge. And, like his boss, we had him in custody and let him go.
Like Baghdadi, Abdullah Qardash had been in Camp Bucca. The two apparently met and bonded there.
There’s been some debate as to when exactly Baghdadi had been released from Bucca. The most famous account pegged it as being in 2009.
The Islamist extremist some are now calling the most dangerous man in the world had a few parting words to his captors as he was released from the biggest U.S. detention camp in Iraq in 2009.
“He said, ‘I’ll see you guys in New York,’” recalls Army Col. Kenneth King, then the commanding officer of Camp Bucca.
It seems likely that the new ISIS leader would have been released around the same time.
And while the Caliph is dead, it’s likely that Qardash will also try to fill those shoes.
According to Sunni jurisprudence, the caliph must be able to trace his lineage directly back to the Quraysh clan of Mecca, to which the Prophet belonged. Shiite Muslims claim that being a Mecca notable by ancestry is not enough to become caliph, saying that potential contenders need to hail strictly from Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Prophet. This explains why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi insists on using two important additional last names whenever making a public statement or appearance. One is al-Qurashi, hailing from Quraysh and another is al-Hassani, the descendant of the Prophet’s grandson. Western journalists and non-Muslims tend to drop both titles for practicality, but ISIS media never refers to him without both affiliations. Al-Baghdadi wants to draw as much historical, religious and popular legitimacy as he could; yet this should not be seen as an attempt to placate either the Shiites nor the Sunnis who oppose him. Interestingly, Abdullah Qardash also hails from Quraysh and from Ahl al-Bayt, makes him an eligible future caliph, should Baghdadi decide to bequeath power to him, or should he assume it himself, with or without Baghdadi’s consent. Apart from lineage, conditions for becoming a caliph are fairly straightforward and also apply to Qardash. The caliph must be a Muslim male, is required to lead the masses during prayer and prove knowledgeable in Islamic jurisprudence and history, two traits that also apply to Qardash, a former Iraqi officer under Saddam schooled at the College of Imam Al-Adham Abu Hanifa al-Noueimi in Mosul.
That’s not a coincidence.
The legitimacy of ISIS is theological. Without a Caliph, it would have no future. So its next best is on a guy we once had in custody.