WASHINGTON — 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 compound where the Islamic State leader was said to have died was far from the terrorist group’s former stronghold.
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.
But experts have long warned that even eliminating the leader of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State does not eliminate the threat. Mr. al-Baghdadi has been incorrectly reported killed before, and American military officials were concerned that Mr. Trump, who posted a cryptic message on Twitter on Saturday night teasing his Sunday announcement, was so eager to announce the development that he was getting ahead of the forensics.
A Defense Department official said before the president’s announcement that there was a strong belief — “near certainty” — that Mr. al-Baghdadi was dead, but that a full DNA analysis was not complete. The official said that with any other president, the Pentagon would wait for absolute certainty before announcing victory. But Mr. Trump was impatient to get the news out, the official said, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper appeared on the Sunday morning shows as a last-minute addition to the programs to promote the apparent success.
Critics of the president’s decision to withdraw American forces quickly argued that the operation took place in spite of, not because of, Mr. Trump and that if the military had not slow-rolled his plan to withdraw, the raid would not have been possible. Rather than justifying a pullout, they said, the raid underscored the importance of maintaining an American military presence in Syria and Iraq to keep pressure on the Islamic State.
“We must keep in mind that we were able to strike Baghdadi because we had forces in the region,” said Representative Michael Waltz, Republican of Florida and a former Army Green Beret. “We must keep ISIS from returning by staying on offense.”
Mr. al-Baghdadi has been the focus of an intense international manhunt since 2014 when the terrorist network he led seized huge parts of Iraq and Syria with the intention of creating a caliphate for Islamic extremists. He was believed to hew to extreme security measures, even when meeting with his most-trusted associates.
American forces working with allies on the ground like the Kurdish troops abandoned by Mr. Trump in recent days have swept Islamic State forces from the field in the last couple of years, recapturing the territory it had seized.
Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death is another important victory in the campaign against the Islamic State, but counterterrorism experts warned that the organization could still be a potent threat.
“The danger here is that President Trump decides once again to shift focus away from ISIS now that its leader is dead,” said Jennifer Cafarella, research director for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “Unfortunately, killing leaders does not defeat terrorist organizations. We should have learned that lesson after killing Osama bin Laden, after which Al Qaeda continued to expand globally.”
The Islamic State has its roots in Al Qaeda in Iraq, a deadly radical Sunni group founded in the early years of the Iraq war by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. In June 2006, Mr. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a safe house by American bombs, but his group continued its devastating violence in Iraq, and the civil war worsened over the next year. Years later, Mr. al-Baghdadi, after a weak period for the group, transformed the organization into the Islamic State, with the help of officials once loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The American commando raid took place on Saturday in Idlib Province, hundreds of miles from the area along the Syrian-Iraqi border where Mr. al-Baghdadi had been believed to be hiding, according to senior officials. Counterterrorism experts expressed surprise that Mr. al-Baghdadi was hiding in an area dominated by Al Qaeda groups so far from his strongholds.
However, the Islamic State has extensively penetrated Idlib Province since the fall of Raqqa, its stronghold in northeastern Syria, in late 2017. The American operation on Saturday took place in a smuggling area near the Turkish border where numerous ISIS foreign fighters have likely traversed, Ms. Cafarella said.
“It could be that he believed the chaos of Idlib would provide him with the cover he needed to blend in among hordes of jihadists and other rebels,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a research organization for global security issues.
But there is also a more ominous possibility of why Mr. al-Baghdadi was in Idlib. “Baghdadi’s presence in Al Qaeda-dominated areas could signal many things,” Ms. Cafarella said. “Most dangerous among them is resumed negotiations between him and Al Qaeda leaders for reunification and/or a collaboration with Al Qaeda elements on attacks against the West.”
American counterterrorism officials have voiced increased alarm about a Qaeda affiliate in northwestern Syria that they say is plotting attacks against the West by exploiting the chaotic security situation in the country’s northwest and the protection inadvertently afforded by Russian air defenses shielding Syrian government forces allied with Moscow.
This latest Qaeda branch, called Hurras al-Din, emerged in early 2018 after several factions broke away from a larger affiliate in Syria. It is the successor to the Khorasan Group, a small but dangerous organization of hardened senior Qaeda operatives that Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s leader, sent to Syria to plot attacks against the West.
If Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death is confirmed, it would set off a succession struggle among top Islamic State leaders. Many other top leaders have been killed in American drone strikes and raids in the past few years. Anticipating his own death, Mr. al-Baghdadi delegated authorities to regional and functional lieutenants to ensure that the Islamic State operations would continue.
“There are few publicly well-recognized candidates to potentially replace al-Baghdadi,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, who tracks militant websites at the New York security consulting firm Flashpoint Global Partners.
Mr. Kohlmann said the next most prominent public figure from within the Islamic State is its current official spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, an enigma himself whose exact pedigree is still unclear.
In announcing the raid, Mr. Trump put himself in the center of the action, describing himself as personally hunting Mr. al-Baghdadi since the early days of his administration. He said he watched the action on Saturday with Vice President Mike Pence; Mr. Esper; Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and others in the Situation Room “as though you were watching a movie.”
Unlike previous presidents announcing such operations, Mr. Trump ended his national address by taking questions from reporters. He made a point of thanking Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq for their cooperation and said Kurdish forces provided “information that turned out to be helpful.”
By contrast, he described America’s traditional European allies as “a tremendous disappointment,” repeating his complaint that they have not agreed to take captured Islamic State fighters who originated from their countries.
He said that American troops did “an on-site test” of DNA to confirm Mr. al-Baghdadi’s identity and that they brought back “body parts” when leaving the scene. Mr. Trump said two women were found there wearing suicide vests that did not detonate but were killed on the scene.
The raid could help Mr. Trump with at least some hawkish Republican lawmakers who had broken with him over his decision to withdraw troops from Syria even as the president refused to notify Speaker Nancy Pelosi or other Democratic lawmakers in advance as his predecessors did in similar circumstances, saying he did not trust them not to leak.
Mr. Trump invited Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, usually a strong ally who had been the most outspoken critic of his Syria decision, to join him for the speech on Sunday morning and then sent Mr. Graham to brief reporters from the lectern in the White House briefing room, an unusual spectacle for a lawmaker.
Mr. Graham called the raid “a game changer in the war on terror,” while adding that “the war is by no means over.” He said Mr. Trump had reassured him on his concerns. “The president’s determination over time has paid off,” Mr. Graham said. “We don’t give him enough credit for destroying the caliphate.”
He added: “This is a moment when President Trump’s worst critics should say, ‘Well done, Mr. President.’”
Democrats were not quick to take the advice. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a leading Democratic candidate for president, released a statement praising the military and intelligence officials involved in the raid without mentioning Mr. Trump at all.
Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who is leading the impeachment inquiry, said “good riddance” to “a bloodthirsty killer,” calling the raid “an important victory.” But speaking on “This Week” on ABC, he offered no congratulations to Mr. Trump himself.
Instead, he said it was unwise for Mr. Trump not to notify the so-called Gang of Eight congressional leaders traditionally informed about such operations, noting that doing so would have been helpful for the president if something had gone wrong. He also said the success of the raid did not absolve Mr. Trump of the decision to abandon the Kurds by pulling out.
“It’s a disastrous mistake to betray the Kurds this way,” he said. “I think it just improves the Russian position in the Middle East, something they desperately want.”
Reporting was contributed by Rukmini Callimachi from Romania, and Edward Wong, Nicholas Fandos and Chris Cameron from Washington.