By Dan Lamothe / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump and senior advisers settled into the Situation Room on Saturday evening, elite U.S. forces more than 6,000 miles away launched one of the most significant counterterrorism operations in the campaign against the Islamic State.
Taking off in eight helicopters from northern Iraq, the troops flew over hostile territory for hundreds of miles in the early Sunday morning darkness.
Their target, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal founder and leader of the Islamic State, was holed up in a compound in northwestern Syria with family members and associates, and the United States had been watching him for days.
What followed was what Trump called a “dangerous and daring nighttime raid” that was carried off “in grand style.” It ended, he said, with Baghdadi fleeing from advancing U.S. forces into a dead-end tunnel and detonating a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children.
“He didn’t die a hero. He died a coward,” the president said. “Crying, whimpering, screaming and bringing kids with him to die. Certain death.”
Other U.S. officials declined to describe Baghdadi’s state in his last moments.
How the operation — named for Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who was abducted and raped repeatedly by Baghdadi before she was killed, according to U.S. officials — came together is still something of a mystery. Among the details that remain unknown are the composition of the force involved and how they communicated with more senior commanders in Washington and beyond.
But in colorful and at times taunting language, Trump revealed details Sunday morning of an operation that marks one of the major victories in the five-year U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.
The president, speaking at the White House, said he “got to watch” much of the raid beginning about 5 p.m. in Washington. He credited undisclosed technology for giving him “absolutely perfect” visuals that were “as though you were watching a movie.”
Trump, who returned to the White House from golfing about 4 p.m., entered the Situation Room about an hour later, he said. Seated at a table in a suit and tie, he was flanked in a photo released by the White House by Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien and two generals: Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Air Force Lt. Gen. Scott Howell, commander of Joint Special Operations Command.
Flying after midnight in the Middle East, the helicopters needed to cross airspace controlled by Iraq, Turkey and Russia, and U.S. officials told them they had an operation planned without providing details. With the Russians in Syria, the Pentagon has called such communication “deconfliction” and said it has prevented accidents and mistaken intent by adversary forces.
When they arrived under cover of darkness, U.S. forces blew holes into the side of the compound in an effort to avoid booby-trapped doors, Trump said. Baghdadi retreated into a tunnel, as U.S. military officials assumed he might. Then he detonated his vest.
Trump said that one U.S. working dog — described by the president as “beautiful” and “talented” — was wounded after chasing Baghdadi into the tunnel and that no U.S. troops were injured, but Esper said separately that two service members suffered minor injuries.
“They’ve already been returned to duty,” Esper said, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Five enemy fighters were killed in the operation inside the compound, and others were killed outside, the White House said in a statement. O’Brien, speaking in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said U.S. troops confirmed that Baghdadi was dead at 7:15 p.m. in Washington.
“The commander of the mission called and said, ‘100 percent confidence, jackpot… . Got him. One hundred percent confidence jackpot, over,’ ” O’Brien said.
Esper, speaking later on ABC’s “This Week,” said that U.S. troops tried to call Baghdadi out of the compound, but that he did not cooperate. The Americans confirmed his death, he said, through visual identification and a DNA sample.
The president said the military’s “top operations people” were involved in the raid, without identifying their units. Esper declined to say which services were involved, but two U.S. officials with knowledge of the operation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the raid included some members of Delta Force, an elite unit that can include members from any service.
“Less than 100” U.S. troops were on the ground in the raid, with more involved in a supporting role, Esper said. Several kinds of aircraft were used in the operation, including CH-47 helicopters. They came under fire early in the mission from “locals in the area,” and the Americans returned fire in self-defense, he said.
Videos circulating on social media on Sunday from Barisha appear to depict helicopters flying at low altitudes in the dark, heavy gunfire and occasional explosions. Images taken after daybreak show the home where Baghdadi lived reduced to rubble. Esper said it was deliberately destroyed.
Trump and other U.S. officials credited Syrian Kurdish forces – whose alliance in the battle against the militants the president has recently played down as he withdraws forces from Syria – with providing useful information. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said in a tweet that they had been gathering information about Baghdadi for five months, while Trump said the operation itself started two weeks ago, once the United States had him “scoped.”
“We thought he would be in a certain location,” the president said. “He was. Things started checking out very well.”
But with the long and often frustrated history of chasing Baghdadi and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, it wasn’t clear how long Baghdadi would stay in Barisha, a small village west of Aleppo.
Pence, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said the United States first received information about Baghdadi’s most recent location early in the week.
“Through a combination of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, we believe we knew where he would be, and by Thursday afternoon were informed that there was a high probability he would be at the compound in Idlib province,” Pence said.
The president directed the military to develop options, and they were presented on Friday, Pence said. “Actionable intelligence” obtained Saturday allowed the raid to go forward, he added.
“It was incredible to be in the Situation Room and to see this unfold in real time as our special forces were on the ground, to see their professionalism over a period of two hours,” he said. “America and the world are safer today with the leader of ISIS dead.”
— The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan contributed to this report.