President Trump announced on Sunday that a commando raid in Syria this weekend had targeted and resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State, claiming a significant victory even as American forces are pulling out of the area.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist to justice,” Trump said in an unusual nationally televised address from the White House. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
Trump said al-Baghdadi died when he was caught at the end of a tunnel, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” as he was chased by American military dogs. Accompanied by three children, al-Baghdadi then detonated a suicide vest, blowing himself and the children up, Trump said.
“His body was mutilated by the blast,” Trump said, but he added that tests had confirmed his identity.
The raid took place on Saturday in Idlib Province, hundreds of miles from the area along the Syrian-Iraqi border where al-Baghdadi had been believed to be hiding, according to senior officials. The target of the raid was killed when he detonated a suicide vest he was wearing, officials said.
For Trump, a successful operation could prove both a strategic victory in the battle against the Islamic State and a politically useful counterpoint to critics in both parties who have assailed him in recent weeks for withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, which allowed Turkey to attack and push out America’s Kurdish allies. A senior American official confirmed that Kurdish intelligence officials in both Syria and Iraq helped locate the target of the raid despite the tensions over the Turkish operation.
But experts have long warned that even eliminating the leader of shadowy organizations like the Islamic State does not eliminate the threat. Al-Baghdadi has been incorrectly reported killed before, and American military officials were concerned that Trump, who posted a cryptic message on Twitter on Saturday night teasing his Sunday announcement, was so eager to announce the development that he was getting ahead of the forensics.
A Defense Department official said there was a strong belief — “near certainty” — that al-Baghdadi was dead, but that DNA analysis was not complete. The official said that with any other president, the Pentagon would wait for absolute certainty before announcing victory. But Trump was impatient to get the news out, the official said, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper agreed to go on the Sunday morning shows as a last-minute addition to the programs to promote the apparent success.
Critics of the president’s decision to withdraw American forces quickly argued that the operation took place in spite of, not because of, Trump and that if the military had not slow-rolled his plan to withdraw, the raid would not have been possible. Rather than justifying a pullout, they said, the raid underscored the importance of maintaining an American military presence in Syria and Iraq to keep pressure on the Islamic State.
“We must keep in mind that we were able to strike Baghdadi because we had forces in the region,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., and a former Army Green Beret. “We must keep ISIS from returning by staying on offense.”
Al-Baghdadi has been the focus of an intense international manhunt since 2014 when the terrorist network he led stormed onto the scene in the Middle East, seizing huge swaths of Iraq and Syria with the intention of creating a caliphate for Islamic extremists. He was believed to hew to extreme security measures, even when meeting with his most-trusted associates.
American forces working with allies on the ground like the Kurdish troops abandoned by Trump in recent days have swept Islamic State forces from the field in the last couple of years, recapturing the territory it had seized.
Al-Baghdadi’s death would be another important victory in the campaign against the Islamic State, but counterterrorism experts warned that the organization could still be a potent threat. Moreover, al-Baghdadi was no Osama bin Laden in the American psyche and hardly a household name in the United States, which may limit the psychological and political impact at home.
“The danger here is that President Trump decides once again to shift focus away from ISIS now that its leader is dead,” said Jennifer Cafarella, research director for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “Unfortunately, killing leaders does not defeat terrorist organizations. We should have learned that lesson after killing Osama bin Laden, after which al-Qaida continued to expand globally.”
Counterterrorism experts expressed surprise that al-Baghdadi was hiding in Idlib Province, an area dominated by al-Qaida groups that is hundreds of miles from his strongholds along the Syria-Iraq border.
However, the Islamic State has extensively penetrated Idlib Province since the fall of Raqqa, its stronghold in northeastern Syria, in late 2017. The American operation on Saturday took place in a smuggling area near the Turkish border where numerous ISIS foreign fighters have likely traversed, Cafarella said.
“It could be that he believed the chaos of Idlib would provide him with the cover he needed to blend in among hordes of jihadists and other rebels,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a research organization for global security issues.
But there is also a more ominous possibility of why al-Baghdadi was in Idlib. “Baghdadi’s presence in al-Qaida-dominated areas could signal many things,” Cafarella said. “Most dangerous among them is resumed negotiations between him and al-Qaida leaders for reunification and/or a collaboration with al-Qaida elements on attacks against the West.”
American counterterrorism officials have voiced increased alarm about a Qaida affiliate in northwestern Syria that they say is plotting attacks against the West by exploiting the chaotic security situation in the country’s northwest and the protection inadvertently afforded by Russian air defenses shielding Syrian government forces allied with Moscow.
More from The Daily Gazette: