On October 26–27, 2019, the United States conducted a military operation codenamed Operation Kayla Mueller after Kayla Mueller, that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the then-leader and self-proclaimed "caliph" of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror organization. The operation took place in the outskirts of Barisha, Idlib Governorate, Syria. According to General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) commander who oversaw the operation, Baghdadi killed himself along with two children when he detonated a suicide belt while seeking to evade the U.S. forces during the raid.
The raid was launched based on an intelligence effort to locate the leader of ISIL by CIA's Special Activities Center. The New York Times reported that, according to two U.S. officials, the CIA obtained the original intelligence on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi following the arrests of one of his wives and a courier, after which the CIA worked closely with Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence officials in Iraq and Syria. The Guardian, however, reported Iraqi officials as saying that the break came after a smuggler (who had smuggled the wives of two brothers of Baghdadi and Baghdadi's children in the past), a woman thought to be his wife, and Baghdadi's nephew provided information on the routes and destinations. Iraqi officials also stated that the arrest of Muhammad Ali Sajid al-Zobaie, Baghdadi's brother-in-law, helped them in finding a desert tunnel leading to two hideouts, filled with items, near Al-Qaim, Iraq, and thereby penetrate a smuggling ring to find Baghdadi. A U.S. official disputed the Iraqi account that Iraq had provided the exact location of Baghdadi, and stated that the operation was triggered when he appeared in a location where they already had established intelligence collection.
Reuters reported Iraqi intelligence officials as stating that the arrest of several Islamic State leaders was the key behind learning about Baghdadi's movements and hiding places. They said that Ismael al-Ethawi, believed to be a top aide to Baghdadi, was found and followed by informants in Syria, apprehended by Turkish authorities, and handed over to Iraqi intelligence agents to whom he provided information in February 2018. The Iraqis then gave the information to the CIA, who kept surveillance on the discovered location through a satellite and drones. They also said that in 2019 the United States, Turkish and Iraqi intelligence conducted a joint operation in which they captured several high-ranking ISIL leaders, including four Iraqis and a Syrian, who provided the locations where they met with Baghdadi inside Syria, after which they decided to coordinate with the CIA to deploy more sources inside these areas. One of the Iraqi officials remarked that "his last moment to live" was when Baghdadi and his family left the location that he was in for the first time. Ethawi and the other aides in an interview to The New York Times stated that they were blindfolded before being taken to meet their leader, in order to keep his whereabouts secret, they were then kept at the location for hours before being blindfolded again and driven away from the site.
Baghdadi's compound was located near GPS coordinates 36.1660, 36.6274, in Syria's Idlib Governorate. Although Idlib is dominated by the Islamic State's rival jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has connections to al-Qaeda, the Institute for the Study of War warned that Idlib is nevertheless the focus of an ISIL strategy to have it serve as an incubator for the next iteration of ISIL and al-Qaeda recruits. In July 2019, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford explained that there were around 20,000-30,000 fighters in Idlib by that time in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Michael P. Mulroy said that "Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world." In regards to Baghdadi's possible rationale for choosing the location, "We assess that he was hiding in Idlib province to avoid the intense pressure that had been put on ISIS in other areas of Syria," operational commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie later stated.
Documents later obtained by Al Aan TV's Jenan Moussa reportedly revealed that, from February 1, 2019 until the day of the U.S. raid, Baghdadi's compound had internet access and that the owner of the site paid the equivalent of an $8 monthly fee in cash to the regional ISP for service. According to Moussa, the username Baghdadi used was "mhrab."
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reported that they provided direct and extensive support to the operation. Prior to the raid, the SDF, working with the U.S. government, had spent five months gathering intelligence on Baghdadi's location. A senior U.S. State Department official said that the Kurdish-led SDF "played a key role" in the raid on Baghdadi's compound and that the United States was in close communication with SDF commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi about every aspect of their operation, and Abdi's statements about the raid, in reference to the joint intelligence cooperation on the ground, were accurate. Gen. Mazloum Abdi said the operation had been delayed by a month due to Turkey's military build-up at the Syrian border and the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria that followed. The New York Times reported that unnamed U.S. intelligence, military, and counter-terrorism officials said that the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria by President Donald Trump had complicated the plans for the operation against Baghdadi, but the Syrian Kurds continued to provide information to the CIA amidst the Turkish offensive. One of the officials remarked that both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds had provided more intelligence for the raid than any single country.
CENTCOM commander Frank McKenzie later confirmed the SDF had provided intelligence to American forces prior to the raid in Idlib, but denied reports that the president's prior order to withdraw forces from north Syria had any impact on the timing or execution of the mission.
The Washington Post reported that, according to a U.S. official, an ISIL militant-turned informant for the Kurds had provided critical intelligence about Baghdadi's location. The SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said that their informant was deep inside Baghdadi's inner circle as a security adviser and had provided a detailed layout of the complex, and was on-site during the operation, after which he left with the U.S. forces. SDF officials said that the informant had stolen Baghdadi's underwear and a sample of Baghdadi's blood, which was provided to the U.S. intelligence for DNA analysis and resulted in a positive match. U.S. and Middle East–based officials stated that the informant was a Sunni Arab ISIL operative, who served as a trusted facilitator and logistics aide to Baghdadi, but defected because ISIL killed his relative, after which he was cultivated as an intelligence asset by the SDF. They said that, after the SDF leadership handed control over the informant to the U.S. intelligence, the informant was carefully vetted for several weeks by the U.S. intelligence and that the effort to exploit the intelligence asset began in the summer of 2019. The informant was subsequently extracted from the region with his family two days after the raid and will likely receive at least some of the $25 million bounty.
Two U.S. officials stated that Baghdadi had been staying at the compound in Barisha since July 2019 and that it had been under surveillance since, but U.S. forces avoided assaulting it due to the presence of al-Qaeda affiliates and the airspace being controlled by Russia and the Syrian government. Some U.S. officials claimed that the Pentagon decided to carry out the mission after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria in early October, as to not lose track of Baghdadi. However, CENTCOM commander Frank McKenzie has stated that the north Syria pullout had "absolutely" no effect on the timing or execution of the operation. "We chose the time based on a variety of factors: weather, certainty, lunar data ... We struck because the time was about right to do it then given the totality of the intelligence and the other factors that would affect the raid force going in and coming out," General McKenzie added.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said that Turkish and U.S. military authorities exchanged and coordinated information ahead of the attack in Idlib. A U.S. official stated that Turkey was informed prior to the operation to avoid an unintended clash between their forces, but was not notified about the target due to concerns that the information would become compromised and did not provide any assistance to the operation. Turkish officials also informed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls much of the area where the raid took place, not to open fire on the helicopters that would be used in the operation; despite being informed, anti-aircraft fire by HTS was used, however the operators were detained by HTS commanders afterwards for not following orders.
Gen. McKenzie briefed Defense Department leaders on the intelligence and the plan on October 25 and received the approval of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley for the operation. President Trump was then briefed "on all aspects of the plan and the risks involved in its execution" and that Russia and Turkey were contacted ahead of the mission to avoid unintended clashes. With Trump's approval, McKenzie, as operational commander, gave the order for the mission to start October 26 around 9 a.m. EST.
On October 26, 2019, shortly after U.S. president Donald Trump and a small team of key civilian and military leaders gathered in the White House Situation Room at around 5 pm EST (23:00 Syria time), U.S. Joint Special Operations Command's (JSOC) 1st SFOD-D (Delta Force) operators, along with U.S. Army Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, departed Al Asad Airbase in Iraq in eight U.S. military helicopters, including Boeing MH-47 Chinooks and Sikorsky MH-60L/M Blackhawks, to conduct an air assault raid on an "isolated compound" 300 meters outside Barisha village—located five kilometers (three miles) south of the border with Turkey in hostile rebel-held territory in Idlib Governorate of Syria—to kill or capture Baghdadi; the assault force reportedly flew through Turkish-controlled and Russian-monitored airspace towards the objective and landed after 70 minutes.
According to Gen. Frank McKenzie, who oversaw the operation, air cover for the assault included armed helicopters, multiple drones, and fighter aircraft providing close air support; they planned for multiple children/non-militants at the compound and tried to minimize casualties. As the heli-borne assault force approached Baghdadi's compound, the helicopters reportedly came under gunfire from two locations from non-ISIL militant groups that were outside the target building but in the area of operations; according to Gen. McKenzie, they were neutralized with two airstrikes from supporting helicopters. The Delta Force operators, supported by military working dogs and military robots, landed outside the compound and surrounded it, repeatedly calling on its occupants to come out peacefully in Arabic. "Those who came out of the building were checked for weapons and explosives and moved away," Gen. McKenzie said. "U.S. forces detained and later released the noncombatants. The group was treated humanely at all times, and included 11 children." Five ISIL 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 to surrender, as they were suspected of wearing suicide vests. Believing the main entrance to be booby trapped, operators breached the compound's walls with explosives.
Once Delta was inside the target building, Baghdadi fled into a tunnel network under the premises wearing a suicide vest and carrying two children with him; by the time he reached a dead end, an explosive ordinance disposal military robot and dog (later identified as a male Belgian Malinois named "Conan") had been dispatched to subdue him. He detonated his vest, killing himself and two children, and causing the tunnel to collapse. The children killed were believed to be younger than 12 years old. U.S. soldiers dug through the debris to retrieve some of Baghdadi's remains and lab technicians successfully conducted DNA profiling and biometrics tests within 15 minutes of his death via Defense Intelligence Agency analysis, confirming Baghdadi's identity. According to the White House, "a combination of visual evidence and DNA tests confirmed Baghdadi’s identity." The quick DNA confirmation is attributed to special forces already possessing samples of Baghdadi's tissue, reportedly voluntarily provided by one of his daughters, according to a U.S. official. McKenzie, however, stated that they were obtained from his time in Camp Bucca.
Two adult male captives and a "substantial" amount of documents and electronic items were seized from the compound during the raid which, per U.S. officials, was a primary goal so they could understand the current leadership structure of ISIL. Items included 5-6 cellphones, 2-4 laptops and some USB flash drives. Just before 3:30 am Syrian time, U.S. choppers departed the area for Iraq and the compound was then destroyed by airstrikes from overhead F-15 jets and MQ-9 Reaper drones, reportedly to prevent the site from becoming a "shrine" for sympathizers. According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, a wide variety of munitions, including AGM-158 JASSM cruise missiles, unspecified precision-guided bombs, and AGM-114 Hellfire guided missiles, were responsible for leveling Baghdadi's compound.
Gen. McKenzie, who called the operation "exquisitely planned and executed," stated that the special forces who took part in the operation were based in Syria and that only U.S. personnel were involved in the raid on the compound itself. The entire operation lasted roughly two hours.
At 9:23pm EST, President Donald Trump tweeted "Something very big has just happened!" with the White House subsequently announcing a planned press conference at 9am the next morning. At the presser, fourteen hours after the raid, Trump announced Baghdadi's death and went on to describe the successful operation against him in detail, reporting that U.S. forces used helicopters, jets, and drones through airspace controlled by Russia and Turkey. He also said that they had Baghdadi "under surveillance for 'a couple of weeks' and 'two or three' raids had been canceled because of his movements". He continued: "The forces targeted the compound using eight helicopters, which were met with hostile fire. The commandos entered the building by blowing holes in the wall, avoiding the main door which was booby-trapped." Trump announced that Baghdadi died by detonating a suicide vest after he was chased by U.S. military dogs and was cornered inside a tunnel. He and other officials initially stated that the explosion killed three of his children alongside him, however Gen. Frank McKenzie later said it had been confirmed only two were killed. Trump said Baghdadi died "like a dog and a coward" and "whimpering and crying and screaming", but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and various Pentagon and administration officials either could not confirm, or outright denied, the "whimpering and crying" detail as Trump reportedly had only seen drone surveillance without live audio.
Reportedly, some U.S. officials said that Trump's press conference contained several pieces of information that were inaccurate, highly classified, or tactically sensitive. These allegations have yet to be proven or substantiated.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley said during a Pentagon briefing that Baghdadi's corpse disposal "was handled appropriately", initially adding that Washington had no plans to release images of his death, but later showed footage of the raid during a briefing on October 30. Baghdadi was buried at sea and afforded Islamic rites, three anonymous U.S. officials told Reuters and a Pentagon source told AFP. An aide of Baghdadi, who handled logistics, was the other man killed according to Iraqi officials. United States secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that two wives of al-Baghdadi were also killed in the raid.
Trump said no U.S. soldiers were injured, but Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said two had been lightly injured during the raid. An American Special Operations Military Working Dog (SOMWD), a male Belgian Malinois named Conan, who chased Baghdadi, was treated for his injuries and returned to work on October 28. During a news conference that day, Esper and Milley declined to identify him for security reasons; Trump released a declassified photograph of him later in the day. The dog was injured due to live electrical cables that were exposed, according to McKenzie.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) war monitor, Delta Force killed nine people, including one child, two women and some high-ranking ISIL leaders. Baghdadi's suicide vest killed two more children, reportedly his own. The Americans captured two militants and rescued eleven children. General Frank McKenzie said six ISIL members, which included four women and another man asides from Baghdadi, were killed in the operation. The raid also killed about 10 to 15 members of other groups who engaged American forces.
Delta also killed a local Guardians of Religion Organization commander, identified as Abu Muhammad al-Halabi, the owner of the house Baghdadi was staying at. An Iraqi intelligence official and Hisham al-Hashimi have stated to The Independent that Halabi was also a smuggler, which is why the ISIL head and his family utilized his services. The inhabitants of the village stated that he was a sheep seller, but rarely interacted with his neighbors. His other alias is believed to be Abu Mohammed Salama and his corpse was flown away by Delta Force after the raid according to Barisha's inhabitants. He, along with some other Hurras al-Din, members is also suspected to have been part of a pro-ISIL faction.
Based on a receipt book of ISIL found by associates of former American intelligence official Asaad Almohammad, analysts have stated that Baghdadi was paying the members of the group in exchange for hiding him. According to the receipt book, ISIL paid at least $67,000 to them from early 2017 to mid-2018, including $7,000 in summer 2018 to prepare bases for ISIL fighters from "al-Khair province", hinting that they helped in smuggling ISIL members. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi pointed to the fact that the two groups were enemies, citing a warning by Hurras al-Din to its members in February 2019 to avoid contact with ISIL and the latter issuing the similar statement about the former in July. However, Tamimi also said that some of the receipts might be fabrications, except the ones from March to July 2018 that he was shown.
Besides the two children killed by Baghdadi's suicide detonation, the U.S. military reported no civilian casualties during the operation.
A report by NPR released on December 3, 2019 cited a local farmer, Barakat Ahmad Barakat, as saying that his right hand and forearm were blown off and his two friends were killed by U.S. helicopter fire during the operation. According to Barakat's account, Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid Qurmo, two cousins, were driving him home in Barisha on October 26 when helicopters fired on their white van. All three exited the vehicle, but one fell, his legs filled with shrapnel. A follow-up strike targeted the group again, killing the two cousins and blowing off a chunk of Barakat's right arm. The cousins died of shrapnel wounds to the chest, according to autopsy reports by a Syrian doctor with the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, an international medical group. Several relatives said the cousins operated a van service and had no connection to ISIL or any armed group; Barakat said the van carried no weapons. Relatives provided video and photos of the scene and the destroyed van to NPR.
An unidentified U.S. defense official told NPR by email that it was the first civilian casualty report they received related to the raid, and that initial reports suggested that a white van in the vicinity had fired on U.S. helicopters. "Surveillance footage will be reviewed to determine if an investigation needs to be opened based upon this additional information," the official said. Former Pentagon intelligence analyst Marc Garlasco suggested the shrapnel damage at the scene resembled that caused by Hydra 70 rockets, a type used by U.S. military helicopters. Garlasco also suggested the secondary strikes on the men fleeing the van was consistent with a U.S. military practice of targeting "squirters"—people perceived to be hostiles running away from an attack. The U.S. military has not confirmed whether it fired on the white van during the raid.
A November 6, 2019 Brookings Institution analysis framed the raid's success as a reminder of the United States' "power and resolve" in the War on Terror, remarking on three particular aspects of the operation: intelligence collection, international cooperation, and operational capability. Brookings asserted that it was a combination of U.S. hard power and soft power that secured cooperation with Turkey, Russia, Iraq and the Kurds and noted that a synergized combination of HUMINT, SIGINT, and visual intelligence gathering was the key to translating the ISIL informant's information into actionable operational intelligence, such as how the deployment of military dogs indicated U.S. forces were expecting close-quarters obstacles thanks to intelligence reports. The analysis stated that despite Baghdadi's eight years of experience evading capture or death, the operation succeeded due to the U.S. professionally utilizing the "Find, Fix, Finish" intelligence cycle standard: Narrow down Baghdadi's suspected location (the Find), verify his identity and location and translate the intelligence into a feasible action plan (the Fix), and subdue the target (the Finish).
A November 19, 2019 Department of Defense Inspector General report, citing Defense Intelligence Agency assessments, stated that Baghdadi's death was "a significant blow to ISIS but would not likely end the ISIS threat" and that his demise "would likely have little effect on the ability of ISIS to reconstitute" itself as a potent transnational threat, according to open-source analysis. A report from the DIA in 2020 concluded that Baghdadi's death did not have an immediate impact on ISIL's abilities to operate.
Representatives of several countries, including Australia, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom, congratulated the United States and said that the death of Baghdadi marked a turning point in the fight against ISIL. Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the raid's result, if confirmed, represented a serious contribution by the United States toward combating terrorism.
Iran, on the other hand, stated that Baghdadi's death was not significant and stated that the actions of the United States are responsible for the rise of ISIL. Iran said that the killing of Baghdadi did not mean the group's end, as sectarianism and terrorism still very much exist and are being exploited by countries like the U.S.
In an interview with the French magazine Paris Match published on November 27, 2019, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dismissed any suggestion the Syrian government had anything to do with the raid and affirmed his skepticism of the operation's success, calling it a "fantastic play staged by the Americans" and quipping "...was al-Baghdadi really killed or not?" Assad made similar remarks to Syria TV weeks prior, calling the operation "little more than a trick" and likening U.S. politics to Hollywood.
News of the death of Baghdadi was ignored by official ISIL channels for days and the group did not immediately confirm his death. Many ISIL supporters refused to believe he was dead, while some others accepted it. Supporters of ISIL's rival jihadist groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda praised his death because of his group's noted record for cruelty. Salafi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini celebrated Baghdadi's demise and called on ISIL members to defect. The activity of jihadist supporters in general temporarily decreased online as well.
ISIL's Amaq News Agency confirmed Baghdadi's death on October 31 and announced Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as his successor. Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi became their new spokesman after its prior spokesperson, Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, was killed in an October 27 U.S. strike in northwest Syria following the Barisha raid. In an audio message, Hamza al-Qurayshi described U.S. President Donald Trump as "a crazy old man" and warned the U.S. to "not rejoice" and that ISIL supporters would avenge Baghdadi's death.
Since Baghdadi's death several of the leaders operating under him have been killed or captured, along with some of his family members.
On November 4, Turkish communications director Fahrettin Altun stated that Rasmiya Awad, Baghdadi's lesser-known older sister, had been captured. According to Reuters, citing Turkish officials, Awad was captured in a raid on a shipping container in the Turkish-controlled Syrian border town of Azaz and that Turkish authorities were interrogating her husband and daughter-in-law who were also detained. When captured, she was also accompanied by five children. "We hope to gather a trove of intelligence from Baghdadi’s sister on the inner workings of Isis," Altun stated. Little independent information is available on Baghdadi's sister and Reuters was not immediately able to verify if the captured individual was her.
On December 3, Iraqi security forces announced the capture of Baghdadi's "deputy" who operated under the name "Abu Khaldoun". According to security officials, a police unit in Hawija, Kirkuk tracked down Khaldoun to an apartment in the March 1 area where he was hiding; he possessed a fake I.D. under the name of Shaalan Obeid when apprehended. Khaldoun was previously ISIL's "military prince" of Iraq's Saladin Governorate.
On December 26, Boko Haram, the West African branch of ISIL, killed 11 captives in what the group called a "message for Christians" and a retaliation for the killing of Baghdadi and Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spent five months working with the U.S. government to gather intelligence on Baghdadi’s whereabouts, according to Kurdish and U.S. 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 U.S. official.
Moreover, CENTCOM and the DIA both said in the IG report that the October raid that bagged ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has had no immediate impact on the group’s ability to operate.
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