Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds has allowed ISIS fighters to escape and regroup
US special operations forces killed the leader of the Islamic State militant group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during a raid in northwestern Syria, US President Donald Trump announced Sunday morning.
But while Baghdadi's death marks a blow to the group, the Islamic State still poses a threat in Syria, particularly since hundreds of its fighters and their family members escaped detention during a Turkish-backed incursion this month that upended months of relative calm in the northeastern part of the country, officials and experts said.
"The incredible thing is that this operation succeeded despite all the ways in which the Trump Administration made it more difficult," said Dana Stroul, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Just as Osama bin Laden's death did not lead to the elimination of Al Qaeda, I would expect that Baghdadi's removal will not be the final death knell of ISIS — despite its significance."
The raid by the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, known as Delta Force, was carried out October 26 after a complicated CIA intelligence-collection operation aided by Syrian Kurdish forces and other US partners in the region, including Iraqi Kurdistan, a senior US administration official told Foreign Policy.
The operation, which involved helicopters and US special operations forces on the ground, was launched from Erbil, Iraq, and inside Syria, the official said.
"Last night, the United States brought the world's No 1 terrorist to justice," Trump said at the White House Sunday, noting that the United States had suffered no casualties during the operation. "The world is now a much safer place."
Baghdadi's death is a victory for Trump and his national security team, who have spent years hunting the world's most wanted terrorist. But officials and experts said it would not undo the damage caused by the president's early October decision to withdraw US forces from the Turkey-Syria border, which precipitated a violent Turkish operation in northeast Syria. Thousands of ISIS fighters and family members remain in makeshift camps across the region guarded by the SDF.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spent five months working with the US government to gather intelligence on Baghdadi's whereabouts, according to Kurdish and US officials. Gen. Mazloum Abdi, SDF commander, was the only foreigner to know about the target, he told Foreign Policy through a translator. His account was confirmed independently by the senior US official.
The operation was delayed for a full month by Turkey's military activity at the border and the subsequent incursion into northeastern Syria, Mazloum said. Ankara moved into Syria days after Trump withdrew US forces from the border in early October, a move that was widely seen as a green light for the Turkish operation.
"Trump rejected [intelligence community] assessments and spilled classified intelligence, cut off our military operations at its knees with unplanned decisions like Syria, repeatedly treated Iraq with indifference, and appeared ready to throw out the relationship with the SDF only a few weeks ago," said Stroul.
"Yet this operation relied on US intelligence our military in Syria and Iraq, intelligence breakthroughs by the Iraqi government, and an intelligence network cultivated by the SDF at US request."
The Delta Force operation that led to Baghdadi's death would have been "extremely difficult" to pull off without a presence on the ground, said one senior US official, who criticized Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw all but a few hundred US forces from Syria.
Baghdadi's death is "a blow to ISIS especially following the defeat of the caliphate. But the fight against ISIS is not over," the official said. "We are less safe for withdrawing our forces in Syria."
Meanwhile, reports emerged that Baghdadi's right-hand man, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, an Islamic State spokesman, was targeted in a separate operation conducted jointly by SDF intelligence and the US military. Mazloum said Muhajir was targeted near Ayn al-Bayda, close to Turkish-controlled Jarablus in the Aleppo province. US officials have not yet confirmed the operation.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, applauded Baghdadi's death, but cautioned that "we must not mistake the demise of one ISIS leader for complete and finite victory."
"Many ISIS fighters remain in tenuous circumstances in the prisons of Northeastern Syria," Smith said in a statement. "ISIS fighters in those prisons and around the world will not rest because of his death."
Baghdadi was hiding out in Idlib province in northwestern Syria, in an area controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadi rebel group hostile to the Islamic State, when the Delta Force operation began, according to the senior US official.
Baghdadi dragged three of his children into a tunnel before detonating a suicide vest, killing himself and the children, Trump said. Though his body was "mutilated" by the blast and the tunnel collapse, on-site test results "gave certain immediate and totally positive identification, it was him," Trump said.
"This is a great day for America and a great day for the world. Last night, US joint special operations forces and interagency partners flawlessly executed a Commander-in-Chief directed operation to capture or kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," said Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a statement. "With our partners, we defeated the physical caliphate of ISIS earlier this year and now its founder and leader is dead. This is a major victory in the enduring defeat ISIS mission."
Trump thanked the governments of Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, as well as the Syrian Kurds, for the support that aided the successful completion of the mission. The president said he watched the operation from the Situation Room with Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, and other generals.
Trump said the operation did not make him rethink the decision to withdraw the majority of US troops from Syria. "We're leaving soldiers to secure the oil," he said. Syria's rich oil fields are situated in eastern Syria, primarily in territory controlled by the SDF.
The SDF, which has fought the Islamic State alongside the United States and others since 2015, contributed to the operation through a network of human intelligence throughout northern Syria, according to US and Kurdish sources. Though Idlib is controlled primarily by Syrian rebels and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—formerly known as the Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of al Qaeda—the SDF has "many sympathizers and informers" there, a Kurdish source said.
In March, a spokesperson for the People's Protection Units (YPG), which makes up the backbone of the SDF, said their intelligence indicated Baghdadi was in Idlib.
"Successful& historical operation due to a joint intelligence work with the United States of America," tweeted Mazloum.
The United States informed Turkey of the operation ahead of time to prevent an unintended clash of forces but did not specify the target due to concerns the information would be compromised, the US official said. Ankara did not play a role in the operation.
"Turkey did not provide any assistance in this operation and he was located right next to their border," the official said. "That shows you how little they do on countering ISIS."
The official Twitter account for the Turkish Ministry of Defense tweeted that "Prior to the US Operation in Idlib Province of Syria last night, information exchange and coordination between the military authorities of both countries took place."
Turkey earlier this month invaded northeastern Syria in an operation that has killed hundreds of Kurdish civilians and fighters. The Kurds were guarding tens of thousands of Islamic State prisoners and family members living in camps across the region.
In a temporary cease-fire agreement brokered by the United States, Turkey vowed to continue rooting out the Islamic State in Syria. However, a large number of Islamic State detainees have been able to escape during the operation, including some who were deliberately freed by Turkish-backed forces. Many of them have ties to extremist groups.
In a statement, the SDF warned of the continuing dangers from ISIS and Turkish-backed forces in Syria.
"We warn the world of the danger that jihadi factions with the Turkish army may enter Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad areas occupied by Turkey-backed militias and that the region could become another safe-haven in which ISIS may find opportunities to re-organize," according to the statement. "We have already indicated that IS members and some senior leaders of the group have already moved to areas controlled by the Turkish army in northern Syria."
Reports emerged Sunday that Iraq claimed to have provided Baghdadi's exact location. However, the US official disputed that account, saying the operation was triggered by him showing up at a place where the team had already established intelligence collection.
Lara Seligman, is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman