Everything We Know And Don't Know About The Raid That Killed ISIS Leader Al Baghdadi (Updated)
We know a surprisingly large amount about the deep raid into Syria to take out the depraved terrorist kingpin, but many questions still remain.
On the evening of Oct. 26, 2019, in Syria's war-torn Idlib Province, a U.S. special operations raid killed one of history's most despicable human beings, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This man was the mastermind of the ISIS caliphate and presided over some of the most depraved acts against humanity seen in generations. His departure from existence is incredible news for the world. That being said, here's what we know about the historic and high-risk operation.
President Trump, who first tweeted that "something very big has just happened" at 9:23 PM local time in Washington D.C. on Saturday evening, talked for nearly an hour and a half about the raid on the morning of Oct. 27. Here are all the main points garnered from his remarkably extensive comments and keep in mind that some of this information is likely to change:
- Raid occurred under the cover of darkness in Idlib Province in northwestern Syria.
- The target was a fortified compound that sat above a number of tunnels, all but one of which were thought to be deadends.
- Al-Baghdadi died after running into a dead-end tunnel with three children. He detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and the three children and collapsing the tunnel.
- Debris was removed and an on-site technician executed a DNA test that came up positive. What was left of him also matched his description. Cadavers are being brought back to the United States for further analysis.
- Trump said al-Baghdadi was crying and screaming before death and that he died "like a dog" and "a coward."
- The team spent roughly two hours in the compound and retrieved large amounts of intelligence for analysis and exploitation.
- No American service members were killed in the operation.
- Special operators were met with a ground fire when they arrived. The targets were neutralized from the helicopters.
- A hole was blown in the side of the compound to access its interior instead of going through a door as it was thought they would be boobytrapped.
- One combat K9 was injured after chasing al-Baghdadi into the tunnel, but did not die.
- A large number of ISIS fighters died with a smaller group captured. They are now in an undisclosed prison.
- 11 children were rescued safely during the raid and were turned over to an undisclosed local party.
- Two women who were wearing suicide vests were also killed, but they did not detonate their vests.
- An explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robot was on-site to move down the tunnel if needed, but the raid moved too fast for it to be used.
- Trump watched the raid in real-time from the Situation Room along with Vice President Pence, Defense Secretary Esper, the Joint Chiefs Of Staff including Chairman U.S. Army General Mike Milley, and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien. The room also held other intelligence and military officials and advisors.
- Trump noted the technology behind his ability to watch the raid directly was very impressive and it was "as though you were watching a movie."
- Only American forces were directly involved in the operation.
- Eight special operations helicopters were used in the operation, which flew through Syrian, Russian, and Turkish defended airspace during the mission.
- Flight time was 1 hour and 10 minutes in and was considered among the most dangerous parts of the operation.
- The helicopters took an identical route in and out.
- Russia received advanced notice of a U.S. mission in order to deconflict airspace, but they were not told about the target of the operation.
- Trump thanked Iraq, as well, for their cooperation, although exactly what it entailed is unclear.
- The helicopters flew at very low level and at very high speed during their ingress and egress to the targe area and took small arms fire along the way. It is thought that these were locals just taking potshots at the helicopters.
- The operation was supported by substantial airpower operating at very high-altitudes according to Trump. He also stated that many ships and planes were involved.
- The Kurds supplied useful intelligence leading up to the raid.
- Trump said the helicopters landed at "a friendly port in a friendly country."
- Trump said that he entered the Situation Room at around 5:00 PM and that the helicopters launched shortly after that. He sent his tweet after they landed safely at 9:23 PM.
- Intel about al-Baghdadi's whereabouts started the chain of events that led to the operation a month ago.
- He was under surveillance for weeks.
- Two or three times similar operations were canceled within that one-month timeframe.
- Al-Baghdadi constantly changed his plans on the fly and never used cell phones, etc., complicating targeting.
- Further confirmation of his presence at the compound occurred and the mission was set to be executed for three days before it began on Saturday evening.
- Trump stated that al-Baghdadi was in Idlib to rebuild ISIS and that he had large amounts of cash on hand to do so.
Beyond Trump's own comments, there have been multiple stories citing anonymous U.S. government sources, as well as those from other countries in the region, that have offered additional, albeit unconfirmed details about the operation. The exact composition of the raiding force, as well as where it started from initially and where it ended, remains unclear, along with a number of other key questions. It has been widely reported that the compound itself was near the town of Barisha, which sits close to the Turkish border.
A major U.S. intelligence collection effort, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at its head, was chiefly responsible for determining Baghdadi's whereabouts and more immediate actionable information that led to the raid, according to Foreign Policy. For years, the U.S. Intelligence Community and the U.S. military have had standing forces dedicated to hunting down senior ISIS figures and its not the first time there have been major raids in Syria. For instance, in 2015, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had revealed the existence of the JSOC-led "Expeditionary Targeting Force," or ETF. This unit was likely involved in a mission that killed ISIS' number two at the time, Rahman Mustafa Qaduli, in Syria the following year. Another operation in 2017, which led to the death of Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, a "close associate" of Baghdadi according to the Pentagon, bore all the hallmarks of this task force, as well.
It is possible that the raid on Baghdadi's compound might be at least partially related to a previously reported operation aimed at tracking the movement of ISIS members throughout the region, as well as elsewhere around the world, known as Operation Gallant Phoenix. , as well. An interagency task force including the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) were reportedly in charge of this effort, which focused heavily on intelligence fusion, from a main base of operations in Jordan. During the approximately two hours they were on the ground at the site during the Baghdadi raid, special operators reportedly recovered additional information that could be useful in locating and killing or capturing other major ISIS figures.
In addition, Iraqi and Turkish officials have said that their governments were both involved to some degree in the lead up to the operation. Sources in Iraq told Reuters that some of the information that led to the raid came from the arrest of two individuals from Baghdadi's "inner circle" and documents recovered during that operation.
Turkish officials also told Reuters that they been aware of the operation ahead of time and coordinated with "relevant parties" on the ground to assist with the mission. Turkey has a significant influence in Idlib via a number of rebel groups opposed to the Syrian regime and Ankara has been instrumental in ensuring that Assad has been unable to retake the entire province. Those same Turkish officials added that Baghdadi had only arrived at the compound some 48 hours before the raid. An unnamed U.S. official disputed claims of cooperation with Turkey during the operation when speaking to Fox News.
The U.S.-supported, predominantly Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that they also provided important intelligence related to Baghdadi ahead of the operation. A spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, which has provided the bulk of the manpower for the SDF, said in March that the group believed that the ISIS leader had made his way into Idlib.
In July 2019, a United Nations report had also said that there was evidence that ISIS fighters, including senior leaders, had fled into the relative safety of the province. This was despite the presence of a litany of groups violently opposed to the terrorist organization residing in Idlib, including Turkish-backed rebels and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the latter of which includes a significant number of former Al Qaeda-aligned fighters.
It's not clear how the Turkish intervention into Northern Syria targeting the SDF, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group, may or may not have impacted the raid on Baghdadi. Later on Oct. 27, after Trump's formal announcement about Baghdadi, the U.S.-backed group did announce that it had targeted Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, ISIS' top spokesperson and Baghdadi's right-hand man, in an associated raid in the village fo Ain al-Baydah, near the city of Jarabulus. This is unconfirmed and would be very curious given that this is an area ostensibly under Turkish control and very close to the Turkish border, where the SDF had previously agreed to withdraw from as part of a deal between the United States and Turkey.
That Trump specifically thanked Russia and Syria might also indicate that there was some level of greater cooperation with either of those countries on this operation, but this seems very unlikely. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have not historically prioritized fighting ISIS. A recent investigation from The New York Times has only underscored how the Syrian regime, with help from Russia, focused the majority of their energy on eliminating rebel groups that threatened the Assad regime by any means necessary and has been actively targeting civilians, including through bombing hospitals, in the furtherance of those goals.
For its part, the Russian Ministry of Defense has publicly denied any involvement in the operation against Baghdadi and has also called the U.S. government's announcement into question. In February 2019, the head of Russia's Main Directorate military intelligence agency, better known by the Russian acronym GRU, had insisted that the ISIS leader was not in Idlib. The Russians had also claimed to have killed him multiple times in recent years.
It also remains unclear how and by what route U.S. special operations forces traveled to Baghdadi's compound. Reports have said that the American personnel initially departed from Erbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the northeastern portion of that country and a major U.S. military hub, as well as Al Asad Air Base further to the southwest.
It is possible that both of these reports are accurate and that there was a need to assemble the requisite personnel from multiple locations in order to act on actionable intelligence about the ISIS leader. However, based on Trump's statements about how long it took them to fly to Baghdadi's compound, it is all but impossible that they traveled directly from Erbil or Al Asad.
The helicopters could have flown to Barisha from an intermediate staging point, however. One very possible location would have been the Kobane Landing Zone, which is situated some 100 miles northeast of where Baghdadi's hiding out. The U.S. military has been withdrawing from this base, which the United States first occupied some time in 2015, as a result of the Turkish intervention.
Official pictures show that U.S. personnel were still there helping with the pullout as of Oct. 23, 2019. Even if the U.S. military had otherwise vacated this base, it would have still provided a large, established airstrip that would have been ideal for establishing a Forward Arming and Refueling Point, or FARP, which U.S. special operations forces routinely use during longer-range air assaults.
However, Trump's comments about a "port" and "ships" might suggest that the raiding force started or completed its mission somewhere else, despite his additional statement that the special operators took the same route to and from the target location. There has been speculation that they may have started and ended the operation against Baghdadi from the U.K. Royal Air Force Base at Akrotiri on the island of Cyprus. A U.S. Navy or contractor-operated ship in the Eastern Mediterranean acting as a sea base is another possibility.
More detail about the exact composition of the raiding force could eventually help answer questions about the most likely ingress and egress routes. On Oct. 27, 2019, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told ABC's Martha Raddatz that approximately a 100 U.S. special operators – reportedly primarily from the U.S. Army's Delta Force and 75th Ranger Regiment – took part in the operation and that Chinook helicopters brought them to and from the target site. The Chinooks were likely MH-47s from the Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, though even JSOC's elite task forces have used standard Army CH-47s, among other conventional enablers, when necessary, in the past. In this case, it is probably safe to say that the 160th SOAR's highly modified MH-47s were exclusively involved considering the hostile airspace the mission took place in, its low-level night penetration demands, and the unique communications and command and control gear needed to coordinate such a complex and high-stakes operation.
Bystanders also found shell casings associated with the M230 30mm automatic cannon near Baghdadi's compound in the aftermath of the attack. Automatic cannon fire allegedly destroyed a small minibus, possibly to prevent Baghdadi and others from escaping the area. There were also reports that gunships otherwise raked the compound and nearby areas with cannon fire during the operation. This was likely in response to the reports of personnel on the ground shooting at the helicopters.
The 160th uses this weapon on their MH-60L/M Black Hawk special operations helicopters in the Direct Action Penetrator (DAP) configuration. Regular Army AH-64 Apache gunships, which have also been supporting special operations activities in Syria from forward locations, such as the KLZ, as seen in the picture of that base earlier in this story, also use this weapon. Both the MH-47s and the MH-60s have inflight refueling capabilities, which could have further helped extend their range during the trip to Baghdadi's compound and then to where ever they went following the mission, as well.
The truth is, we really don't know the composition of the eight helicopter force at this time beyond the inclusion of MH-47s Chinooks. Many will wonder if some form of stealthy Black Hawk was used, similar to those used in the Bin Laden raid. It is possible that the initial raiding force used such a platform, a newer version of which has been rumored to be operating around Syria for years, but we just don't know at this time. The possibility that heavy weaponry was fired at the compound from the air during the operation would make this possibility less likely.
Also, alerting the local players as to the operation's timing may have reduced enough risk to allow the more conventional helicopters to be used. Of course, it's not like the 160th SOAR's MH-60s and MH-47s aren't designed to operate in contested airspace as it is.
So many other questions remain, such as what airpower was assigned to give this raiding force cover from above if it would have been needed. It is very rare that manned U.S. or coalition aircraft fly into Western Syria. For years, it has been all but off-limits airspace and standoff munitions were used to hit larger targets. American drones have and still do operate in the area, but considering how high-value this target was, placing a non-stealthy drone overhead for weeks may have been too risky. During the lead-up to Operation Neptune Spear that took down Bin Laden, stealthy RQ-170 Sentinels worked as the eyes in the sky over Bin Laden's compound, even watching him pace daily in his courtyard prior to the operation commencing.
It is very possible Sentinels were used to monitor the compound in the weeks leading up to the operation and to stream live video of the operation, as well. In fact, just like in 2011, this is likely what Trump and his advisors were watching in the Situation Room. It's also worth noting that there are also stealthy MQ-11 Avengers in the region that could be under the CIA's direction. Either asset would have been more ideal than an MQ-9 Reaper drone hanging out over the compound for days on end and during the raid. The MQ-11 could also provide close air support.
With all this in mind, another question emerges: were F-35s used for overhead support or were far more traceable assets held off at a greater distance, ready to push into the area if need be? The latter option would have required a far more elaborate package, including Wild Weasel aircraft ready to suppress or destroy any enemy air defense systems that may target the fighter aircraft above. Regardless, a huge number of aerial assets would have been involved in this operation—from airborne command and control aircraft, to tankers, to communications relay aircraft, to electronic intelligence monitoring platforms, to combat search and rescue forces. Every contingency would have been planned for and capabilities arrayed to respond as needed.
The lightning-fast disclosure of this raid is also puzzling. There was no stealth Black Hawk tail left behind to answer for as was the case in the Bin Laden operation. Considering the level of exploitable intelligence they pulled out of that compound, even a few days would have given the intel folks a leg up on targeting al-Baghdadi's accomplices and operatives – as has reportedly already happened to Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir.
The compound was leveled after the operation, as well, which may have drawn some local attention, but in that region, kinetic actions happen daily against all types of targets. Electronic communications between top ISIS operatives were limited if not nonexistent, news of the raid would have spread slower than otherwise and it would have probably been laced with confusion.
Regardless, one of history's most depraved maniacs has been scraped from the earth once and for all. More details are sure to emerge about the operation in the hours and days to come. We will keep you up to date as they do.
UPDATE: 6:30pm EST—
National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Oct. 27, 2019, that the official nickname for the operation was a tribute to Kayla Mueller, an American air worker that ISIS took hostage and murdered in 2015. He did not say what the nickname was, however. For comparison, the raid that led to the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was nicknamed Operation Neptune Spear.
The New York Times and Bloomberg have both now reported that President Donald Trump's decision to effectively acquiesce to Turkey's intervention into northern Syria targeting the predominantly Kurdish SDF and a subsequent order for a near-total withdrawal of American forces from the country had threatened to upend the search for Baghdadi and plans to raid his compound in Barisha. U.S. policy has reversed to some degree with a decision that came last week that has seen American troops now reinforce a position near the city of Deir Ez Zor.
"The Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, one official said, provided more intelligence for the raid than any single country," The Times reported. The SDF continued to provide information on Baghdadi and his whereabouts even after the pullout began, which the group had publicly described as a betrayal by the United States.
There is also an unconfirmed report that Baghdadi's remains have been buried at sea, as was the case with Osama Bin Laden's body, a tactic used to prevent them, or even just a known final resting place, from becoming a shrine of sorts for future terrorists. This also brings up questions again about the involvement of ships offshore during the operation.
UPDATE: 1:20 PM EST—
General Mazlum Abdi, who also goes by Mazlum Kobane, the head of the SDF, has claimed that the organization had a source who had infiltrated Baghdadi's compound, providing unprecedented information about the site and its layout ahead of the operation, as well as other vital details. That individual was reportedly on the ground during the operation. There are also reports that SDF personnel were otherwise present during the raid, but it unclear if this refers to this particular informant.
At a press briefing on Oct. 28, 2019, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark Milley, standing beside Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, said that a wide variety of munitions, including AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missiles, unspecified precision-guided bombs, and AGM-114 Hellfire guided missiles, had been responsible for leveling Baghdadi's compound.
He did not say what aircraft were involved, but this makes confirms that, as expected, some number of fixed-wing aircraft were providing top cover for the operation, in addition to the still unknown helicopter gunships. Milley said that additional information may be coming soon in subsequent briefings. The General also said that the military working dog injured in the raid was set to make a full recovery.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com