The Barisha raid, officially codenamed Operation Kayla Mueller after Kayla Mueller, was a United States military operation conducted in the outskirts of Barisha, Idlib Governorate, Syria, on October 26–27, 2019, to capture or kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the then-leader and self-proclaimed "caliph" of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror organization. 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 a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Special Activities Division's intelligence effort to locate the leader of ISIL. 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 explained that "Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world."
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.
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. Reportedly, 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.
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.
According to CENTCOM Gen. Frank McKenzie, President Trump was 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 in Syria), 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 a U.S. military base in Erbil, 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. Reportedly, local villagers said U.S. helicopters engaged ISIL defenders for 30 minutes, including firing missiles at two nearby houses, leveling one, before ground teams moved in. 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. 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.
According to the U.S., once their personnel were 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 prisoners 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. 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.
Trump press conference
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.
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 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 the Delta forces 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.
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.
ISIL response and subsequent operations
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. The activity of jihadist supporters in general temporarily decreased online. Supporters of ISIL's rival groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda praised his death because of his group's record for cruelty. Abdullah al-Muhaysini celebrated Baghdadi's demise and called on ISIL members to defect.
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.
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.
- List of United States special forces raids during the Syrian Civil War
- Death of Osama bin Laden, similar raid that targeted al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
- Eastern Syria insurgency
- Battle of Baghuz Fawqani
- Turkey–ISIL conflict
- Rojava–Islamist conflict (2013–present)
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- Statement from the President on the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, October 27, 2019.