WASHINGTON — President Trump announced the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State group, or ISIS, in a televised address on Sunday morning.
“Last night the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
According to Trump, al-Baghdadi and a “large number” of his fighters were killed on Saturday night in Idlib Province, Syria, after a raid by U.S. Special Operations forces. Trump offered a dramatic narration of the raid, which he said he was able to watch and took “approximately two hours.” He gave a graphic account of the terrorist being chased down a tunnel by American troops “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”
“He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down,” Trump said of Baghdadi. “He ignited the vest, killing himself and three of his children.”
Al-Baghdadi’s body was badly mutilated but was positively identified on the spot by a DNA match, Trump said. “We had his DNA.”
Trump said the U.S. had been pursuing al-Baghdadi for years and described “capturing or killing” the leader as “the top national security priority of my administration.” He said the intelligence that led to finding al-Baghdadi came together in recent months, and the operation had been planned for about two weeks.
The president mocked al-Baghdadi’s ISIS fighters as “losers” and said al-Baghdadi died in a state of “utter fear, total panic and dread.” He didn’t indicate how he knew what al-Baghdadi was thinking.
“He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place. God bless America,” Trump said.
Trump warned other terrorist leaders could face a similar fate but stressed the unique importance of killing al-Baghdadi.
“We’re after these leaders, and we have others in sight, very bad ones, but this was the big one. This was the biggest one perhaps that we’ve ever captured,” Trump said.
As he stressed the importance of taking down al-Baghdadi, Trump suggested the ISIS leader’s death was even more significant than the 2011 U.S. operation that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“This is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center,” Trump said. “This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country … and was trying to do it again.”
When bin Laden was killed in 2011, Trump wrote several tweets suggesting President Barack Obama should not have been praised for that operation. Trump’s future (now ousted) national security adviser John Bolton said that Obama killed bin Laden in the same sense that Richard Nixon personally landed on the Moon in 1969.
ISIS has been a deadly presence in the Middle East and Africa, but it has also inspired followers to mount terror attacks abroad. In the United States, ISIS was cited by the perpetrators of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., which left 19 people dead, and the 2015 San Bernardino attacks, in which 14 people were killed, among others. ISIS also became known for releasing dramatic videos of executions that included U.S. journalists.
Trump said al-Baghdadi was “under surveillance” for a “couple of weeks.” According to Trump, a U.S. military canine — “a beautiful dog, a talented dog” —was hurt in the raid, but no American troops were killed. The president personally signed off on the operation that resulted in al-Baghdadi’s death.
Trump’s Syria policy has been heavily criticized in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, the U.S. pulled troops out of Northern Syria to allow Turkey to begin a military operation there, flushing out Kurdish militias that have been fighting ISIS alongside American troops. Critics, including some U.S. politicians and allies, fear that move might help ISIS regain strength. Turkish troops entered Northern Syria on Oct. 9, days after the U.S. withdrawal. Since then, both the U.S. and Russia have brokered ceasefires between Turkey and Kurdish groups, though both sides have accused the other of subsequent violations.
At its height in 2015, ISIS controlled large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. The group, whose English-language name is shorthand for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” governed itself as a nation. ISIS declared its territory an Islamic caliphate and established a system of religious courts that meted out brutal sentences. The group also has affiliates in Africa and in the Philippines and has inspired terrorist attacks around the world. In more recent years, ISIS has been heavily hurt by military operations carried out by the international community. The military efforts against ISIS have included forces that are not necessarily allied, including Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, Syrian opposition forces, Jordan, Turkey, Kurdish groups, the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Spain, among others.
In his announcement, Trump said the raid that resulted in al-Baghdadi’s death could “only have taken place with the acknowledgement and help of certain other nations and people.” He specifically thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Syrian Kurds. Trump said Turkey was notified of the raid in advance.
But the president said Western European nations have been “a great disappointment” in the fight against ISIS by refusing to accept back their citizens who had joined ISIS and were captured and being held in the prison camps run by the U.S. and Kurds.
As he took questions from reporters following the announcement, Trump, who campaigned on ending America’s foreign wars, also said he did not regret the decision to withdraw from northern Syria. He said a small number of U.S. troops would be staying in the country to secure oil reserves because "we should have the oil.”
“We don’t want to be there. We want to be home,” Trump said of Syria.
Al-Baghdadi, who was born in Iraq in 1971, was active in the insurgency following the U.S. invasion there. He was captured and held in U.S. custody in 2004. During his time in Camp Bucca, an American detention facility, al-Baghdadi made connections with members of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, who later populated the ranks of ISIS leadership.
Despite al-Baghdadi’s status as leader of one of the world’s most prominent jihadist groups, he has remained relatively mysterious and has been seen in public only once in 2014 when he made an address from the pulpit at the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq. He was next seen in April of this year when ISIS released a video in which al-Baghdadi sat on a mattress alongside a Kalashnikov assault rifle, praised those responsible for suicide attacks in Sri Lanka and encouraged his followers to keep fighting. Last month, ISIS released an audio message that was purportedly from al-Baghdadi in which he encouraged the group’s members to carry out attacks, particularly against prisons holding ISIS fighters.
Though al-Baghdadi was the leader of ISIS, his death is unlikely to mark the end of the jihadist group. ISIS has decentralized its operations since losing territory in recent years. The group has a robust social media operation that has inspired followers to commit terror attacks in the region and abroad. Al-Baghdadi’s relatively rare communications have not been a core part of that operation. Speaking to reporters after his announcement, Trump said the U.S. is prepared to deal with whoever follows in al-Baghdadi’s footsteps.
“We know the successors, and we’ve already got them in our sights,” Trump said.
Trump also said he did not notify congressional leaders that al-Baghdadi was killed as would be traditional “because Washington leaks like I’ve never seen before.” In spite of the secrecy, there were some indications of al-Baghdadi’s death prior to Trump’s announcement. On Saturday night, Newsweek first reported the raid in Idlib targeted al-Baghdadi and that a “U.S. Army source” said that al-Baghdadi “was killed.” The White House also announced Trump’s planned address on Saturday night, but the subject was not revealed. That announcement came after Trump hinted at a major development on Twitter.
“Something very big has just happened!” Trump wrote.
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