U.S. forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a raid in Northwestern Syria last night, President Donald J. Trump announced today.
The "daring and dangerous raid" went off without a hitch, Trump said. There were no casualties among the American forces.
Baghdadi was arguably the world's most-wanted terrorist. He was the founder and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
ISIS — an outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq — exploded onto the scene in 2014. The group took advantage of the Syrian civil war to take territory and proclaimed itself a caliphate.
The terror group ruled from its capital of Raqqa, Syria. It held vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq — including Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
"The United States has been searching for Baghdadi for many years," Trump said from the White House. "Capturing or killing Baghdadi has been the top national security priority of my administration. U.S. special operations forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style."
Trump said he watched much of the raid from the White House Situation Room, and he called the U.S. forces who executed the raid "incredible."
Trump said Baghdadi was trapped in a dead-end tunnel and exploded a suicide vest that killed him and three children.
"His body was mutilated by the blast; the tunnel had caved in on it, … but test results gave certain, immediate and totally positive identification it was him," Trump said.
"The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him," the president said.
The American forces also took information and material from the compound that will be exploited moving forward, Trump said.
"Baghdadi's demise demonstrates America's relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations," he said.
U.S. support to indigenous forces in Iraq and Syria led to the defeat of the physical caliphate in March. The group has been attempting to reconstitute itself as a terror group. The raid yesterday is a reminder to all that the United States and like-minded nations will not let this happen, the president said.
"This raid was impeccable, and could only have taken place with the acknowledgement and help of certain other nations and people," Trump said. "I want to thank the nations of Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us. This was a very, very dangerous mission."
Fewer than 100 U.S. service members were involved with the operation, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said later on ABC's "This Week."
Esper said the president made a bold decision to launch the raid into northwest Syria to go after the world's most-wanted terrorist.
"Our military service members and our interagency partners executed brilliantly," the secretary told ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz. "So here we are. Earlier in the year, we defeated the physical caliphate — destroyed the physical caliphate — and now its leader is dead. So it's a great day."
Esper gave some details of the planning behind the raid and the operation itself. U.S. intelligence officials began piecing together information from a number of points that led to Baghdadi, he said. In the meantime, forces rehearsed for the heli-borne raid. "The president chose his option and gave us the green light to proceed, as we did yesterday," Esper said.
The United States received cooperation from other nations over the past two days, the secretary said.
Helicopters brought the striking party to the site. The raid did come under fire at one point, Esper said, but there were no U.S. casualties, and U.S. aircraft returned fire. The raid was on the ground for about two hours, he added.
Baghdadi was in a compound with a few other men and women and a large number of children. "Our special operators have tactics and techniques and procedures they go through to try and call him out," Esper said. "But at the end of the day, as the president said, he decided to kill himself and took some small children with him, we believe."
While fewer than 100 service members participated in the raid, hundreds more worked all over the U.S. government to bring Baghdadi to justice, Esper noted. "I think all the praise goes to our service members and to our intelligence professionals and others who took this on," the secretary said. "And the message is if you're a leader in ISIS, if you're a leader for a terrorist group, we are going to come after you and we will hunt you relentlessly."
Esper said he believes the death of the ISIS leader will make a difference in the region. "Al-Baghdadi was the founder of ISIS," he said. "He formed the caliphate. He was an inspirational leader in addition to being a thug and a murderer. So when you take out a leader like that, it's going to have, I think, a major impact on the organization.
"But we'll see over time," he continued. "Our job is to stay on top of that and to make sure that we continue to take out their leadership and organizations."
The raid was dangerous, Esper said, but U.S. personnel took on the mission and performed it brilliantly. "These are always inherently risky, and as I like to say, our folks make the complex and the dangerous look simple and safe," he said.