(CNN) — President Donald Trump declared Sunday morning that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead after a US military raid in northwest Syria over the weekend.
“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” Trump said at the White House, calling the ISIS leader’s removal “the top national security priority of my administration.”
The President said a US special operations forces mission went after the ISIS leader and there were no US deaths during the operation.
Several ISIS fighters and companions of al-Baghdadi were killed, including two women wearing suicide vests and three children. Trump would not provide a specific number of casualties, only describing those targeted on the scene as “more dead than alive.” Eleven children were moved out of the house and are uninjured, the President said.
The death of al-Baghdadi marks the culmination of a years-long hunt to find one of the most wanted terrorists in the world and the man who declared a so-called Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014. But it also comes as the US military is pulling back in Syria, a move analysts warn could allow for an ISIS resurgence.
But Trump insisted that al-Baghdadi’s demise had nothing to do with the US’s recent decision to pull out of northern Syria. “No, the pullout had nothing to do with this. In fact, we found this out at a very similar time,” Trump said.
Trump said al-Baghdadi was chased to the end of a dead-end tunnel by dogs, bringing three children with him. At the end of the tunnel, he detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and the children with him.
‘He died like a coward’
The President said “immediate” and “totally positive” test results proved it was al-Baghdadi, saying a lab technician on the scene of the raid confirmed the ISIS leader’s death.
“He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place,” Trump said.
Trump described the situation, saying the ISIS leader “spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.”
The President said US forces obtained “highly sensitive material and information from the raid, much having to do with ISIS — origins, future plans, things that we very much want.”
Trump told reporters al-Baghdadi was under surveillance for a couple of weeks and that two to three planned missions were scrapped before the successful one was launched.
The US flew over certain Russian airspace during the mission, he said.
The President said he watched the operation from the White House Situation Room beginning at 5 p.m. The mission, he said, began shortly thereafter and went on for about two hours. He was accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark A. Milley, and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, Deputy Director for Special Operations, according to Assistant to the President Dan Scavino.
“Last night was a great night for United States and for the world,” the President said. He described in sometimes brutal terms how al-Baghdadi died.
He said the leader, “spent his last moments in utter fear… terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.” He described al-Baghdadi as, “crying, whimpering, screaming, and bringing three kids with him. To die. Certain death.”
The President said he informed a few members of Congress of the raid ahead of his announcement, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump said he did not inform key Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Trump said a leak of the raid could have cost American lives.
Trump said it was a “very dangerous mission,” regarding flying in and flying out. He thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Syrian Kurds for helping in the mission.
During the mission, he said, US service members were met with local gunfire, which was eliminated.
‘Devastating blow’ to ISIS
Esper told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning that the President approved the raid “late last week” after being presented with different options. The objective, Esper said, was capturing al-Baghdadi or if necessary, killing him.
“He reviewed them, asked some great questions, chose the option that we thought gave us the highest probability of success and confirmation that the head of ISIS would be there and either captured and killed and then we executed from there,” Esper said.
Esper added that “we’re going to watch carefully next steps. And as a new leader and leaders pop up we’ll go after them as well.”
Esper described the death of the ISIS leader as a “devastating blow” to ISIS. “This is not just their leader, it’s their founder. He was an inspirational leader in many ways,” Esper told Tapper.
CNN reported early Sunday morning that al-Baghdadi was believed to have been killed in the raid, according to a senior US defense official and a source with knowledge. The final confirmation was pending while DNA and biometric testing is conducted, both sources told CNN. The CIA assisted in locating the ISIS leader, the defense official said.
Al-Baghdadi became the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2010. In 2013, ISI declared its absorption of an al Qaeda-backed militant group in Syria and al-Baghdadi said that his group would now be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
Al-Baghdadi has been in hiding for the last five years. In April, a video published by the ISIS media wing al-Furqan showed a man purporting to be al-Baghdadi. It was the first time he had been seen since July 2014, when he spoke at the Great Mosque in Mosul.