President Donald Trump said Sunday that terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, perhaps the world’s most wanted man, was killed during a special operations raid over the weekend.
“Last night the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Trump said at the White House in an early morning televised address to the nation.
Al-Baghdadi led the extremist organization known as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Trump said he died after running from a house into a dead-end tunnel while being chased by United States Special Operations commandos in Northwest Syria. Al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest that killed him as well as three of his children, Trump said.
“He died like a dog,” Trump said. “He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place.” “He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said.
Al-Baghdadi is the highest-ranking terrorist to be killed or captured since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
United States Special Operations commandos made the raid late Saturday in northwestern Syria, Trump said. News reports said the raid targeted al-Baghdadi, who was located with the assistance of the CIA.
No U.S. personnel were killed in the raid, Trump said.
The “dangerous and daring nighttime raid” was carried out on Saturday and the U.S. personnel “accomplished their mission in grand style,” Trump said.
The raid took place for about two hours, and U.S. forces seized “highly sensitive information” from the raid including ISIS origins and future plans.
Al-Baghdadi’s body was “mutilated by the blast” and the tunnel had caved in due to the explosion, Trump said. Officials did an on-site DNA test to confirm his identification, removing rubble to get to the body.
The test results “gave immediate and total identification,” Trump said.
Eleven children were uninjured and were moved out of the house, Trump said.. It was unclear who the children belonged to, Trump said, but he said some fighters at the scene were taken and imprisoned.
Al-Baghdadi spent his “last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him,” Trump said.
Trump said he and Vice President Mike Pence watched much of the mission from the White House Situation Room. Al-Baghdad spent his final moments “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” he said.
Trump did not confirm how many people were killed in the mission, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had earlier reported at least eight deaths.
Two women, who Trump described as wives of al-Baghdadi, were found wearing vests that had not been detonated. Both women were killed in the operation.
The announcement of Baghdadi’s death came three weeks after Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to sweep into the area and attack Kuridsh rivals. That decision drew bipartisan criticism that Trump had abandoned a former ally that fought alongside U.S. forces against ISIS.
Both the Kurds and the Turks said they provided assistance to the U.S. raid that targeted al-Baghdadi.
Mazloum Abdi, the commanding general of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said on the organization’s official Twitter account: “Successful & historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America.”
In another tweet, the Turkey Ministry of National Defense said: “Prior to the US Operation in Idlib Province of Syria last night, information exchange and coordination between the military authorities of both countries took place,”
Trump signaled the news Saturday night with an enigmatic tweet saying that “something very big has just happened!” Trump said he sent the tweet right after U.S. forces landed in the area.
About 90 minutes later, the White House announced that Trump would make “a major statement” from the White House on Sunday morning.
Officials also said that Defense Secretary Mark Esper would appear on Sunday morning new programs to discuss developments in Syria.
As the leader of a self-proclaimed caliphate, the charismatic and vicious al-Baghdadi urged followers to carry out attacks against the United States and other western countries.
There have been many previous reports of al-Baghdadi’s death that did not pan out, and the U.S. put a $25 million bounty on his head.
Al-Baghdadi appeared in an ISIS video in late April, his first public appearance in nearly five years, praising Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka against Catholic churches and high-end hotels that killed more than 250 people, including at least four Americans.
Trump critics took issue with Trump’s television drama-like rollout of the news about al-Baghdadi.
“So Trump has to Trump even the apparent killing of al-Baghdadi,” tweeted Robert E Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea. “He had to leak on Twitter to create hype & suspense and grab the news cycle. He can never rise to the moment. Maybe the announcement will finally display some gravitas, not gloating, but who really expects that now?”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors events in that country, said the attack was “carried out by a squadron of 8 helicopters escorted by an International Coalition warplane,” and killed “about 10 persons.”
Contributing: John Fritze, Associated Press