A U.S. military special forces operation in northwest Syria successfully targeted and “violently eliminated” Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, President Donald Trump announced in a nationally televised Sunday morning address.
“Last night the United States brought the world's number one terrorist leader to justice,” said Trump, speaking from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, explaining that the IS leader detonated a suicide vest in a tunnel, also killing three of his children.
“When he blew himself up, the tunnel collapsed,” said Trump.
“No (US) personnel were lost in the operation,” but a large number of al-Baghdadi's fighters were killed and others were captured, according to Trump. He said the Islamic State leader, who was hiding in a tunnel tried to flee, “was screaming, crying and whimpering” in his last moments.
“He died like a dog. He died like a coward,” added Trump.
Baghdadi’s remains were positively identified in 15 minutes, according to Trump.
“They have his DNA and they brought it with them with lab technicians who who were with them” to perform “an on-site test” after getting to Baghdadi’s body following clearing some debris in the “dead-end” tunnel, explained Trump when asked about the identification by reporters.
“We’ve already got them in our sights,” replied Trump when asked about successors to the IS leader.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces says IS spokesman and Baghdadi's "right-hand man" Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was also killed in the U.S. operation. U.S. officials have yet to confirm his death.
When Trump was asked whether he had notified Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the raid, he replied “I wanted to make sure this was kept secret, “complaining of news leaks in Washington.
Eight U.S. helicopters encountered local gunfire as they approached the raid site, according to Trump, who said “that gunfire was immediately eliminated.”
There were also “many other ships and planes” supporting a large group of U.S. fighters who “blasted their way in so quickly” and then “all hell broke loose,” said Trump.
Russia “did not know the mission,” explained Trump but allowed the helicopters to fly over areas in Syria it controlled.
Trump also thanked Iraq, Syria and Turkey for unspecified cooperation and expressed appreciation to the Syrian Kurds for providing helpful information.
Eleven hours earlier Trump had tweeted: “Something big has just happened!”
In the following hours, there were reports from news agencies, including VOA, and officials in the Middle East that the IS founder and leader was dead. The reports were greeted with a degree of skepticism as Baghdadi's demise had previously been erroneously reported several times.
Since 2016, the United States had offered a reward of up to $25 million for information to help bring Baghdadi to justice. Only one other person, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, has a reward that high.
Trump’s announcement turned into an extended question-and-answer session with a group of reporters in the room, who asked about his sudden recent pullout of U.S. forces from Syria.
“I don’t want to guard Turkey and Syria for the rest of our lives,” replied Trump. “Now I will secure the oil.”
Trump said the United States is not reconsidering its withdrawal from Syria.
Jeff Seldin, Carla Babb, and Kenneth Schwartz contributed to this report.