Washington D.C. (CBS NEWS)- President Trump said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and head of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), died in a “daring and dangerous” raid by U.S. commandos on Sunday, ending a yearslong manhunt for the most wanted terrorist in the world.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice,” the president said from the White House. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
The president said he watched much of the raid from the White House Situation Room, alongside the secretary of defense and other top military and national security officials.
On “Face the Nation,” Vice President Mike Pence said it was “incredible” to be able to watch the operation “in real-time.”
Mr. Trump said U.S. special operations forces in eight helicopters flew for more than an hour from an undisclosed location to reach the compound in northwestern Syria. U.S. officials said the forces were from the Army’s elite Delta Force. They breached the walls and were met with gunfire, killing a “large number” of enemy fighters in the ensuing gun battle, which lasted more than two hours, according to the president.
After the soldiers cleared the compound, al-Baghdadi fled to a “dead-end tunnel,” bringing three of his children with him. As K-9 units pursued him, al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and the children. Mr. Trump said al-Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”
The president said U.S. operators were able to confirm al-Baghdadi’s identity through DNA testing on the scene, noting his body was under rubble and badly mutilated.
“Baghdadi and the losers who worked for him, and losers they are, they had no idea what they were getting into. In some cases, they were very frightened puppies,” the president said. “He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place. God bless America.”
No U.S. service members were killed in the raid but one dog was hurt, Mr. Trump said. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told ABC’s “This Week” that two service members suffered minor injuries but are already back on duty. The president said the troops involved “accomplished their mission in grand style” and collected a trove of sensitive intelligence related to ISIS.
The president said al-Baghdadi had been under surveillance “for weeks” and changed his location frequently to avoid detection. Mr. Trump said he first learned of this specific operation three days ago.
Mr. Trump said he did not inform congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of the raid beforehand, out of fear it would leak publicly. Pelosi demanded the administration tell lawmakers about the raid.
“The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top Congressional Leadership were notified of in advance, and on the Administration’s overall strategy in the region,” she said in a statement Sunday. In his announcement, Mr. Trump thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq for their assistance in the operation, as well as the Syrian Kurds.
Nonetheless, leaders on both sides of the aisle welcomed the news of the terrorist leader’s death, praising U.S. troops and the intelligence community. They also warned that al-Baghdadi’s death does not mean the end of the fight against ISIS. The group lost its last strip of territory in March, but there are an estimated 14,000 to 18,000 members remaining in Iraq and Syria, with another 12,000 fighters imprisoned.
The killing of al-Baghdadi comes three weeks after the president announced he would withdraw troops from northern Syria. The Pentagon said last week that some U.S. forces would be redeployed to northeastern Syria and reinforced to protect oil fields in the region.
On Sunday, the president said the current upheaval in the region did not factor into the decision to launch the operation.
“No, the pullout had nothing to do with this. In fact, we found this out at a similar time, it’s a very good question because we found this out at a similar time,” Mr. Trump told reporters.