WASHINGTON — The Pentagon released photos and videos Wednesday of the raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and provided more details about the operation involving special operations forces and a now famous military dog.
The release came after Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, participated in classified briefings on Capitol Hill for House and Senate members about the raid in Syria.
McKenzie was the operational commander for the mission and provided reporters at the Pentagon a timeline of the mission as it unfolded Saturday.
“[Al]-Baghdadi was the subject of an intense interagency effort to bring him to justice. And that effort significantly advanced recently as we closed in on his whereabouts,” he said.
On Friday, President Donald Trump was briefed “on all aspects of the plan and the risks involved in its execution,” McKenzie said. Russia and Turkey were contacted ahead of the mission to avoid possible conflicts in the region with the American forces. With Trump’s approval, McKenzie gave the order for the mission to start Saturday at about 9 a.m. EST.
The kill or capture raid was an air assault with eight helicopters pre-staged in Syria carrying special operations forces through hostile territory to the “isolated compound” in northwest Syria about 4 miles south of Turkey’s border in the Idlib province, according to McKenzie. The area is hundreds of miles from the lands that al-Baghdadi once controlled and has been largely dominated in recent years by anti-Syrian regime forces, including al-Qaida aligned groups, which opposed ISIS.
The air cover for the assault included armed helicopters, multiple drones, and fighter aircraft to support and protect the soldiers on the ground, according to McKenzie. They planned for multiple children at the compound and tried to minimize casualties.
When the U.S. forces arrived at the compound, enemy fighters from two locations nearby began firing at the aircraft that were part of the raid. The fighters were not with al-Baghdadi but one of the other militant groups in the area, McKenzie said, and they were killed by two airstrikes. The first video presented at the Pentagon of the raid, seemingly taken from an aircraft, showed a group of several people who become engulfed as the ground bursts from munitions being fired from above.
The special operations forces surrounded the compounded and repeatedly called on its occupants to come out peacefully, according to McKenzie.
The second video presented shows a group of people in the foreground approaching a walled compound with a building and yard in the middle. The people who came out of the compound, including 11 children, were checked for weapons and moved away from the area, according to McKenzie.
Five ISIS members inside the compound— four women and one man — “presented a threat to the force” and were killed when they did not respond to commands in Arabic to surrender, McKenzie said.
Once inside, the U.S. forces discovered al-Baghdadi hiding in the tunnel with two children, which was initially reported as three in the immediate aftermath of the raid. Knowing he would be captured, al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest, killing the children, McKenzie said.
During Trump’s announcement Sunday from the White House of al-Baghdadi’s death, the president described the ISIS leader in his final moments in the tunnel “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” as a U.S. military dog chased him. McKenzie, as Milley did during another Pentagon briefing Monday about the raid, could not confirm Trump’s telling of al-Baghdadi’s state before his death.
“I can tell you this: he crawled into a hole with two small children and blew himself up while his people stayed on the grounds. You can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity,” McKenzie said of al-Baghdadi’s final moments. “So that would be just my empirical observation of what he did.”
The children killed were believed to be younger than 12 years old.
The soldiers dug through debris in the tunnel to get to al-Baghdadi’s remains for a DNA analysis, which was conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Afterwards, his remains were buried at sea within 24 hours of his death.
The U.S. military working dog in the tunnel with al-Baghdadi was injured when live electrical cables were exposed after the ISIS leader detonated the suicide vest. The dog is a male Belgian Malinois whose photo but not his name was released by Trump on Monday via Twitter. McKenzie did provide additional details on the dog, stating he has been part of the Special Operations Command canine program for four years and had participated in about 50 combat missions. He has since returned to duty.
A “substantial” amount of documents and electronics were collected at the compound and taken by the American soldiers, along with two adult male prisoners. McKenzie would not say what was collected from the compound, just that they were going to “exploit” the material and they expect it will help them “as we go forward.”
Once the American forces left the area by helicopter, the compound was destroyed in a drone airstrike. A third video shown during the Pentagon briefing shows bombs falling from an aircraft off screen and a large plume of smoke rising up from the ground.
In separate videos uploaded online by the Defense Department on Wednesday, one shows the building in the compound directly beneath a drone and bombs falling onto the structure, and another drone footage of the compound on fire.
“It looks pretty much like a parking lot with large potholes right now,” McKenzie said, describing the aftermath of the airstrikes on the compound.
“The operation was exquisitely planned and executed,” he said. “It demonstrates the United States global reach and our unwavering commitment to destroy ISIS, bring its leaders to justice, and to protect America and others from people like [al-]Baghdadi.”