By Steve Holland and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday announced that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself during a daring overnight raid by elite U.S. special operations forces in Syria, in a major victory as he fights a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry.
Baghdadi died alongside three of his children by detonating an explosives-laden vest when he fled U.S. forces into a dead-end tunnel during the attack, which took place in the Idlib region in northwest Syria, the Republican president said in a televised address to the nation from the White House.
Under Iraqi-born Baghdadi’s rule, Islamic State — which at one point controlled swathes of Syria and Iraq — is responsible for gruesome attacks against religious minorities and attacks on five continents in the name of a form of ultra-fanatical Islam.
“Last night the United States brought the world’s No.1 terrorist leader to justice,” Trump said in extended remarks describing the raid.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the goal of the operation had been to capture Baghdadi if possible but kill him if necessary.
Esper said two U.S. forces suffered minor injuries during the operation but have already returned to duty. Trump said a military dog was wounded.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the operation was staged from an airbase in western Iraq.
The death of Baghdadi was an important win for Trump weeks after his sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria sparked a wave of harsh criticism, including from fellow Republicans, that the move would lead to a resurgence of Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.
“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, panic and dread, terrified of the American forces coming down on him,” Trump said.
“He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and his three children. His body was mutilated by the blasts. The tunnel had caved on him,” he added.
Russia opened up its airspace for the raid and Kurdish allies gave some helpful information, according to Trump, who watched the operation unfold with Vice President Mike Pence and others.
Trump said the raid would not change his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. U.S. forces included the elite Delta Force, a U.S. official told Reuters.
Trump indicated that killing Baghdadi was a greater achievement than the 2011 U.S. operation during the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
“Bin Laden was a big thing, but this (Baghdadi) is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever,” Trump said.
The Baghdadi raid put the spotlight on Trump’s uneasy relationship with the U.S. intelligence community. He praised the role of intelligence officials in laying the groundwork for the attack, saying that is the type of activity it should be focused on.
Trump has taken issue with the intelligence community on various issues, including its conclusion that Russian meddling in the 2016 election was aimed at helping him win.
His administration is also investigating the origin of the counter intelligence operation into Russian interference during the 2016 election.
In what may end up being one of Trump’s most important national security achievements, the killing of Baghdadi will help the Republican president project strength as he fights a widening impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats last month.
The impeachment inquiry focuses on Trump’s request for Ukraine to investigate a domestic rival – Democrat Joe Biden – for his personal political benefit. Biden’s son, Hunter, had served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Biden, who is a contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the 2020 election, congratulated those involved in the operation, but did not mention Trump himself and again criticized the president’s Syria strategy.
“We cannot afford to get distracted or take our eye off the target. ISIS remains a threat to the American people and our allies, and we must keep up the pressure to prevent ISIS from ever regrouping or again threatening the United States,” Biden said.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking at the White House, praised Trump for making what he called a “hard call” in approving the attack.
“What the president said today was very reassuring to me –that when it comes to ISIS and other terrorist groups, we’re coming after you, wherever you go, as long as it takes to protect our country and our way of life,” he added.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir and Katanga Johnson; Writing by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)