Transcript

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Rath Hoffman and General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., Commander, United States Central Command

Oct. 30, 2019
Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan R. Hoffman and Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., Commander, United States Central Command

JONATHAN HOFFMAN:  Hey, good afternoon everybody, thank you for joining us.  Sorry to be hosting this a little bit later in the day, but we had some events going on earlier that we needed to attend to.  As you're aware, Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley and Gen. McKenzie participated in a classified all-member briefing with the House and Senate this afternoon to discuss the successful U.S. military operation that resulted in the death of Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS.

CENTCOM commander, Gen. McKenzie, is here with me today to share more details about the operation, but, first, I'd like to add a few operational updates.  Shortly after this briefing, and we'll actually have to wrap this up when we butt up against the time for, the White House will be hosting a Medal of Honor ceremony for Army Master Sgt. Matthew Williams.  Master Sgt. Williams is receiving this award for risking his life to save fellow special operators in Shok Valley, Afghanistan, during Operation Commando Wrath in 2008.  Master Sgt. Williams' leadership and bravery represent all that the Medal of Honor symbolizes, and we are honored for him to be presented with the nation's highest medal for valor.  We're eternally grateful to men like Master Sgt. Williams that they choose to protect and defend this country.  This event will be live streamed. We hope you all will tune in.

Lastly, the department continues to operate under a continuing resolution, which we expect to expire in three weeks.  The secretary and the department have been consistent in our messaging that this is unacceptable, and we ask members of Congress to consider working with us over the coming weeks to find a solution to fully fund our operators every day where we do not have a -- a final budget.  It affects our readiness. It affects our lethality, and it affects our maintenance efforts.  So we look forward to working with Congress on that.

With that, I'll quickly turn it over to Gen. McKenzie to make a few opening remarks, and then we'll be happy to take your questions.

GEN. KENNETH F. MCKENZIE:  Thanks, Jon.  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us here today.  As the commander of U.S. Central Command, I was the operational commander for the mission against Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, so I'm here to provide additional details on the mission that resulted in his death.  I have some prepared remarks, and then I'll take a few questions on the raid at the end.  Let's get the first slide, please.  As a symbolic founder and self-proclaimed leader of a murderous gang of terrorists that once controlled a large swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria, and which committed an untold number of atrocities there and abroad, Baghdadi was a priority target of U.S. Central Command.  Baghdadi was the subject of an intense interagency effort to bring him to justice, and that effort significantly advanced recently as we closed in on his whereabouts. 

As it became clear that we had gained fleeting and actionable intelligence on his hideout, we developed an executional level plan designed to capture or kill him and started preparing a special operations team for the mission.  I initially briefed department leadership on the intelligence and the plan.  Last Friday, October the 25th, with the approval of Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley, we then extensively briefed the president on all aspects of the plan and the risks involved in its execution.  Next slide please.

The general outline of the mission was a helicopter assault by special operations forces that were pre-staged in Syria, launched against an isolated compound in northwest Syria where Baghdadi was suspected to be hiding.  Following the assault, which was designed to capture or kill, the team returned to its staging base.  While that concept sounds simple enough, I can assure you that the plan was significantly more complex than that, and designed to avoid detection by ISIS and others prior to and during execution, to avoid civilian causalities, and, with enough air cover, including armed helicopters, multiple unmanned strike aircraft, and fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, to support and defend the assaulting forces. 

I will also note that the plan accounted for the assumption that we would find multiple children at the objective.  As you will see, we took steps to minimize innocent causalities.  With the approval of the president, and with prior contact to Russia and Turkey for the purpose of deconfliction, in order to reduce the risk to U.S. forces and prevent any state actors in Syria from miscalculating and interfering with our forces, I ordered the mission to commence from my headquarters in Tampa at around 9 o’clock a.m. Eastern time on Saturday the 26th.  Throughout the day, I was in contact with the president and his national security team as they monitored from the White House.  Let me have the next slide, please. 

Here, we see the object of the assault, the compound where Baghdadi was hiding.  As I noted earlier, this isolated compound was in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, approximately four miles from the Turkish border.  It's an area that we have not traditionally operated in, and roughly a one hour helicopter flight from our staging base in Syria.  We assessed that he was hiding in Idlib Province to avoid the intense pressure that had been put on ISIS and other places in Syria. Once the assault force arrived at the compound, fighters from two locations in the vicinity of the compound began firing on U.S. aircraft participating in the assault.  These individuals, who we don't assess were affiliated with Baghdadi, but nonetheless demonstrated hostile intent against U.S. forces, were killed by two air strikes from supporting helicopters.  Let's run the next video please.

These fighters opened fire on our aircraft, and what you see in the video is the actual response.  With the assault force surrounding the compound, we repeatedly urged those inside to come out peacefully.  Let's go to the next video, please.

This is a video of the assault force actually closing up to the compound.  Those who came out of the building were checked for weapons and explosives and moved away from the immediate area.  U.S. forces detained and later released the non-combatants.  The group was treated humanely at all times, and included 11 children.  I want to make it clear that despite the violent nature of the raid and the high-profile nature of this assault, every effort was made to avoid civilian causalities and to protect the children that we suspected would be at the compound. 

Five ISIS members inside the compound presented a threat to the force.  They did not respond to commands in Arabic to surrender, and they continued to threaten the force.  They were then engaged by the raid force and killed.  There were four women and one man.  After this engagement, and once established inside the compound, U.S. forces discovered Baghdadi hiding in a tunnel.  When capture at the hands of U.S. forces was imminent, Baghdadi detonated a bomb that he wore, killing himself and two young children that were with him. 

The number two is a change.  We originally thought there were three children with him, and this is the number we originally reported up the chain of command.  We now know the number to be two, based on subsequent debriefing. 

A total of six ISIS members died on the objective. Four were women, and there were two men, including Baghdadi.  This is in addition to the two children killed by Baghdadi as he blew himself up.  Let me emphasize again that 11 children were protected by the assault force, and two men on the objective were detained by the assault force, and they were extracted with the force. 

After Baghdadi's murder/suicide, our assault force cleared significant debris from the tunnel and secured Baghdadi's remains for DNA identity confirmation, which were flown with the assault force back to the staging base. 

Following collection of samples for formal DNA analysis, Baghdadi's remains were buried at sea in accordance with the law of armed conflict within 24 hours of his death.  While the assault force was securing the remains, they also secured whatever documentation and electronics we could find, which was substantial.  The assault force then left the compound and returned to their helicopters with the two detainees that I've already mentioned.  After our forces were safely off the objective, U.S. forces employed precision standoff munitions to destroy the compound and its comments – and its contents -- pardon me.  Let's go to the next video, please. 

So what you'll observe are U.S. standoff munitions striking the compound.  For those of you who may have seen before and after pictures of the compound, it looks pretty much like a parking lot with large potholes right now.  The operation was exquisitely planned and executed. It demonstrates the United States' global reach and our unwavering commitment to destroy ISIS, bring its leaders to justice, and to protect America and others from people like Baghdadi.  The mission was a difficult, complex and precise raid that was executed with the highest level of professionalism and in the finest tradition of the U.S. military. 

Since there is a significant interest in military working dogs, I wanted to provide a little background on this fine K-9.  Next photo, please.  And actually, let's go back a moment.  Before I actually go to the dog, I would just like to show you the before and after pictures of the raid compound.  You can see the way it looked before, and you can see the way it looks -- the way it looked afterwards.  So, it's pretty clear the success of the standoff munitions that we employed to ensure that it would not be a shrine or otherwise memorable in any way.  It's just another piece of ground.  Let's go to the dog picture.

U.S. Special Operations Command military working dogs are critical members of our forces.  These animals protect U.S. forces, save civilian lives, separate combatants from non-combatants, and immobilize individuals who express hostile intent.  This dog is a four-year veteran of the SOCOM K-9 program and has been a member of approximately 50 combat missions.  He was injured by exposed live electrical cables in the tunnel after Baghdadi detonated his vest beneath the compound.  I will also note he has been returned to duty. 

Finally, I would like to address the DNA analysis that was conducted to confirm Baghdadi's identity.  The final slide, please?  As you can see, the Defense Intelligence Agency conducted the analysis, and compared DNA from the remains taken from the compound with an on-file sample taken when Baghdadi was at Camp Bucca prison in Iraq in 2004.  The analysis showed a direct match between the samples and produced a level of certainty that the remains belonged to Baghdadi, of one in 104 septillion, which is certainly beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

In closing, I would like to acknowledge that despite Baghdadi's death, we will not forget the victims of the atrocities he directed and inspired since 2014.  U.S. Central Command remains focused on the enduring defeat of ISIS, and will remain vigilant against all terrorist organizations in the region who threaten the United States, our partners and our allies.  I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the professionalism in the men and women who made this operation a success.  This was a true interagency effort, so I commend our partners across the U.S. government.  The individuals who planned and conducted the mission are quiet professionals, focused on their mission above glory or recognition.  Committed people did hard, risky work, and they did it well.  I now have a few minutes to answer questions.  Jonathan, over to you.

MR. HOFFMAN:  Lita.

Q:  General McKenzie, with the death of Baghdadi, can you just give us a sense of what the U.S. counter-ISIS fight is going to look like?  Are you seeing leaders start to emerge?  And just as a related, the troops are now moving into Deir ez-Zor, can you tell us how they're going to supplement that counter-ISIS mission, and explain about how they're going to be protecting the oil?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure, absolutely.  Let's -- let's start with -- with -- with ISIS.  ISIS is first and last an ideology, so we're under no illusions that it's going to go away just because we -- we killed Baghdadi.  It will remain.  Suspect at the highest levels they'll be a little disrupted; it will take them some time to reestablish someone to lead the organization, and during that period of time their actions may be a little bit disjointed.  They will be dangerous.  We suspect they will try some form of retribution attack, and we are postured and prepared to -- and we're postured and prepared for that.

But -- but we should recognize that, again, since it's an ideology, you're never going to be able to completely stamp it out.  And, in fact, our definition of long term success against ISIS and other entities like ISIS is not the complete absence of that ideology, but rather its existence at a level where local security forces, wherever in the world it exists, can deal with it. There's no international connective tissue. There's no ability to attack our homeland, and local forces, perhaps with training and some assistance, perhaps without those things, is going to be able to suppress those entities as they go forward. 

We don't see a bloodless future, because, unfortunately, this ideology is going to be out there, but we think there's a way to get to a point where it's going to be less -- less and less effective over time. 

So the second part off your question was about Deir ez-Zor.  What we want to do is ensure that ISIS is not able to regain possession of any of the oil fields that would allow them to gain income going forward.  So that's -- we've got forces at Deir ez-Zor, that is -- we have brought in some reinforcements there.  We'll await further decisions of the U.S. government about how that plan is going to look in the long term, and I wouldn't want to get ahead of the Secretary of Defense in describing that.  But as of right now, we have secured the oil fields at Deir ez-Zor, generally east of the Euphrates River, in the vicinity of Conoco and Green Village, for those of you that follow the details on the ground.

MR. HOFFMAN:  Phil? 

Q:  General, could you confirm that Baghdadi -- his final moments, there was -- the president said that he was whimpering and crying in his final moments.  And also, could you give us any better of a sense -- you talked about substantial electronics recovered from the site.  What did -- could you elaborate a bit on what that means?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure, so let me start with the second part.  No, I can't tell you anything about what we took off the site.  You'll appreciate that.  We're going to exploit that, and we expect it to help us as we go forward. So, -- now about Baghdadi's last moments; I can tell you this:  he crawled into a hole with two small children, and blew himself up while his -- while his people stayed on the ground; so you can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity.  So that would be just my empirical observation of what he did.  I'm not able to confirm anything else about his last seconds.  I just can't confirm that one way or another.

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right.  Luis?

Q:  Sir, were there reinforcements?  Did any other ISIS personnel try to approach that position?  And -- and was there fire that was exchanged?  There's footage of a white van that was riddled with bullets that was right next to the scene. 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  So, there were no other ISIS forces in the area.  We are completely confident of that.  He had been up there for an extended period of time hiding.  There were other militant groups in the area that probably did not know he was there.  Once they saw the helicopters land and begin to operate, they began to flow toward it.  So -- but they were not flowing to reinforce him, they were flowing toward what they saw -- thought was -- was perhaps a Turk military operation, perhaps a Russian military operation, perhaps an American military operation. They didn't know.  So the white van that you talk about was one of the vehicles that displayed hostile intent, came toward us, and it was destroyed in addition to the video that I just shared for you -- with you of the fighters on the ground that were addressed by the gunships. 

Q:  Do you know how many casualties there may have been?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So you know, we don't.  Out there it's going to be hard to know.  We use the figure of about 10 to 15, but I -- but we really don't know for sure, and I don't know that we're ever going to know that, because we're not going to go back out there and count.

MR. HOFFMAN:  Jennifer?

Q:  Sir, you mentioned that you staged from within Syria.  Was there anything about the changes on the ground in the last two to three weeks with the U.S. pulling back forces, with Turkey coming across, that caused you to accelerate this operation or change the timing of this operation?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, Jennifer, absolutely not.  We -- we -- we chose the time based on a variety of factors -- weather, certainty, lunar data, a variety of things like that.  And while it might have been convenient to use bases there, the United States military has the capability to go almost anywhere and support ourselves even at great distances.  So that was not a limiting factor.  We -- we struck because the time was about right to do it then, given the totality of the intelligence and the other situation, and the other factors that would affect the raid force going in and coming out.

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right.  Missy?

Q:  Just a general -- couple quick clarifications.  So you said that there were, I think, six individuals killed on site, four women and two men, is that right?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  That's correct.

Q:  Did any of those individuals fire at the American forces as they were entering the compound?  And also, could -- is there any other information you could give us about how the tunnel was detected, how far underground Baghdadi was, and do you know the rough ages of the children that he took down there with him?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So I would tell you we believe that the ages of both children that he took down there with him were under 12 years old.  But that's about all I can tell you about that.  I can tell you that -- that -- that we believe Baghdadi actually may have fired from his hole in his last moments.  The other people that were -- that were engaged on the objective were behaving in a threatening manner with suicide vests approaching the raid force, and that causes you to make some decisions, particularly when they don't respond to Arabic language commands to stop, warning shots, and the progression of escalation that -- you know, that our special operators are so very good at, Missy.

Q:  And how was the tunnel detected?  Was it open or was it --

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So we -- so as we looked at it -- and -- and, you know, as you would expect, we had an opportunity to study this pretty carefully.  We came to the conclusion we should expect possibly a tunnel feature there.  So that was the first thing that we -- that we took a look at.  And -- and then the interrogation of people on the objective allowed us to gain a better appreciation of where it might be.  And then, as you know, we just have a variety of things that I can't go into, one of them being the working dogs, that are very good at scenting humans and going after them when they're not immediately obvious.  So, that's sort of how we came to that conclusion.

The key thing is, you know, we actually established physical security around the compound, got the non-combatants off, and that gave us a little bit of time to work the problem.  You're -- pardon me.  You're always worried in a situation like that that the house might be rigged, so you've got to pay attention to that.  There are a variety of things that the raid force commander has to balance on the ground, and I think they did a remarkable job of doing that.

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right, so I've just been given notice that the event in the White House is going to start shortly, so we're going to do a couple more questions and out of respect for Master Sgt. Williams, we're going to cut it short.  So we'll go over here.  Ryan?

Q:  General, can you talk about any support that the SDF provided to this operation?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, yes, I can.  And so, as you know, we maintain, and continue to maintain, linkages to the SDF.  Some of their early intelligence was very helpful to us in beginning to -- in beginning to shape this problem, so I would say that they were part of it.  They did not participate in this raid. This was a U.S.-only operation.  There were no other -- there were no other nationality that participated in it.

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right.  Helene?

Q:  In the case of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, U.S. forces found that the house in Abbottabad had no internet, no cell service.  You mentioned recovering electronic equipment from al-Baghdadi's place.  Was -- was -- was he using the internet?  Was there -- had they been -- had they been on lockdown or was he -- you know, was --

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  Good question.  I think -- and we're still working this out.  I think you'd find there's probably a messenger system that, you know, allowed you to put something on a -- on a floppy or on a -- on a bit of electronics and have someone physically move it somewhere.  That seems to be the cutout that most of these organizations seem to prefer.  But I defer -- I'm not going to go into much more detail on it than that.

MR. HOFFMAN:  Tom, then, last question.

Q:  General, you said two men were extracted with the special operations forces.  Were they both ISIS members -- was one a supposed informant?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So both -- both members were extracted, both turned themselves over, both are under detention now, and I wouldn't go any further than that.

Q:  What about the reward money, the $25 million?  Is -- who's going to get that?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I have no visibility on that.  Sorry, Tom.

(CROSSTALK) 

MR. HOFFMAN:  That's -- that's going to go to the dog.  All right, guys.  Thank you very much.  Sorry to have to cut it short, but I hope you guys understand we had a hard deadline.  And, General McKenzie, thank you for coming in today to speak with everybody.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Thank you.