President Trump announced on Sunday that a commando raid in Syria this weekend had targeted and resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, claiming a significant victory even as American forces are pulling out of the area.
“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Mr. Trump said in an unusual nationally televised address from the White House. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
Mr. Trump said Mr. al-Baghdadi was chased to the end of a tunnel, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” as he was pursued by American military dogs. Accompanied by three children, Mr. al-Baghdadi then detonated a suicide vest, blowing up himself and the children, Mr. Trump said.
Mr. al-Baghdadi’s body was mutilated by the blast, but Mr. Trump said a test had confirmed his identity. The president made a point of repeatedly portraying Mr. al-Baghdadi as “sick and depraved” and him and his followers as “losers” and “frightened puppies,” using inflammatory, boastful language unlike the more solemn approaches by other presidents in such moments. “He died like a dog,” Mr. Trump said. “He died like a coward.”
Mr. Trump said American forces, ferried by eight helicopters through airspace controlled by Russia with Moscow’s permission, were met by hostile fire when they landed and entered the target building by blowing a hole through the wall rather than take a chance on a booby-trapped main entrance. No Americans were killed in the operation, although Mr. Trump said one of the military dogs was injured.
Mr. Trump, who is under threat of impeachment for abuse of power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his domestic political rivals, appeared eager to claim credit for the raid, engaging in a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters after his statement as he personally walked them through the details, promoted his own role and compared himself favorably to past presidents.
The White House released a photograph of Mr. Trump surrounded by top advisers on Saturday in the Situation Room where he monitored the raid on Mr. al-Baghdadi’s hide-out in Syria, much like the famed image of President Barack Obama watching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Mr. Trump even seemed to suggest that killing Mr. al-Baghdadi was a bigger deal than killing Bin Laden.
Mr. al-Baghdadi never occupied the same space in the American psyche as Bin Laden, but proved to be a tenacious and dangerous enemy of the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
The son of a sheepherder from Iraq, Mr. al-Baghdadi, 48, was arrested by occupying American forces in 2004 and emerged radicalized from 11 months of captivity and came to assemble a potent terrorist force that overtook Al Qaeda. He promoted a virulent form of Islam and at one point controlled a swath of territory the size of Britain.
The discovery of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s location came after the arrest and interrogation of one of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s wives and a courier this summer, two American officials said. The location surprised his American pursuers because it was deep inside a part of northwestern Syria controlled by archrival Qaeda groups.
Armed with that initial tip, the C.I.A. worked closely with Kurdish intelligence officials in Iraq and Syria — including those caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria earlier this month — to identify Mr. Baghdadi’s whereabouts and to put spies in place to monitor his periodic movements.
For Mr. Trump, a successful operation against Mr. al-Baghdadi could prove both a strategic victory in the battle against the Islamic State and a politically useful counterpoint to critics in both parties who have assailed him in recent weeks for the troop withdrawal, which allowed Turkey to attack and push out America’s Kurdish allies from northern Syria.