The top U.S. commander in the Middle East has now briefed reporters on the U.S. special operations raid this past weekend that led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an isolated compound near a village located close to the Turkish border in western Syria. The presentation also included video footage showing portions of the raid as it occurred and the subsequent destruction of the compound after the operation was complete.
President Donald Trump had already offered significant information about the raid, as had press reports before and after, which you can read more about in The War Zone's initial reporting on the operation. Here are the basic new details that U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), provided on Oct. 30, 2019:
- CENTCOM, with approval from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark Milley, briefed President Trump on the details of the planned raid on Oct. 25, 2019, the day before its execution.
- CENTCOM leadership, from the command's headquarters in Florida, ordered the raid to commence at approximately 9:00 PM EST on Oct. 26, 2019.
- The plan included the assumption that children would be at the compound during the raid.
- This was a U.S.-only operation and no personnel from any other countries or non-state groups, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, were involved.
- The heliborne task force traveled to and from the compound from a pre-staged, but unspecified location within Syria.
- The total flight time from that staging base to the compound in Barisha in Syria's Idlib province was approximately one hour.
- Armed helicopters, unmanned "strike aircraft," and fourth- and fifth-generation manned fighter jets provided air cover for the raid.
- U.S. officials contacted both Turkish and Russian authorities for deconfliction purposes only ahead of the raid.
- Militants, which the U.S. military does not believe were ISIS-affiliated and who had been in two separate nearby positions, reacted to the raiding force arriving at the objective.
- They fired on the raiding force as it approached and escorting gunship helicopters neutralized both groups with two separate airstrikes.
- The U.S. military does not know how many of these other fighters were killed in the operation or what group or groups they were affiliated with.
- U.S. special operations forces then established a perimeter around the compound.
- They urged the occupants to come out peacefully in Arabic.
- A group consisting of an unknown number of non-combatants, but which contained 11 children, was initially detained and later released.
- Two additional men were detained and remain detained at an unknown location.
- The raiding force killed one man and five women who "were behaving in a threatening manner" and did not respond to Arabic commands to surrender and warning shots.
- At least some of these individuals were wearing suicide vests.
- There were also concerns that the compound was booby-trapped.
- The U.S. military now says that only two children died when Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest, not three as was initially reported.
- The military working dog on the mission was injured as a result of coming into contact with exposed wires in the tunnel.
- The dog, which is a male, is a four year veteran of the U.S. Special Operations Command K-9 program and has been on approximately 50 missions.
- The dog, the name of which has not been officially released, has returned to duty.
- Baghdadi's remains were buried at sea "in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict" and within 24 hours of his death.
- Baghdadi's identity was confirmed by checking DNA samples from the raid against an on-file sample from his internment at Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2004.
- There is only a 1 in 104 septillion chance that the DNA is not from Baghdadi.
- An unmanned aircraft employed unspecified munitions against the compound initially.
- "U.S. standoff munitions" were employed to completely destroy it and left the site looking "pretty much like a parking lot with large potholes right now."
- A declassified video of the subsequent airstrikes on the compound to destroy it show at least six individual munitions.
- The total destruction of the compound was aimed at trying to ensure that it would not become a shrine or pilgrimage site for militants in the future.
These additional details help clarify a number of additional points. Notably, the use of a staging base in Syria, something The War Zone
had posited initially was extremely likely, as it explains how the helicopters were able to arrive within previously reported timeframes, as well as the one that President Donald Trump had disclosed in his own remarks on Oct. 27.
While we don't know where this staging location was, the U.S. military still had access at the time of the raid to a number of suitable facilities in Eastern Syria that would have been close enough for the helicopters to have made the trip in around an hour, including the Kobane Landing Zone. U.S. special operations forces could easily have established a temporary forward arming and refueling point, or FARP, from which to launch the mission, as well.
The mix of eight helicopters remains unknown, but the video that CENTCOM released of one of the strikes on the unknown militants does confirm that gunship helicopters of some kind employed 30mm cannon fire during the operation. Heavily armed special operations MH-60M Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S. Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, configured as so-called Direct Action Penetrators (DAPs), remain a very likely possibility. Depending on the forces available, regular U.S. Army AH-64 Apaches, which have been a regular part of U.S. operations in Syria in recent years, may also have provided this escort.
DAP with M230 30mm cannon fitted:
General McKenzie also confirmed that there were unmanned aircraft overhead during the operation and fourth- and fifth-generation combat aircraft were also on station to provide support if necessary. We still don't know what aircraft were involved or where they flew from, but we do know that a variety of suitable platforms are forward deployed in the Middle East, including MQ-9 Reapers, fifth-generation F-22 Raptors and F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, and fourth-generation combat jets such as the F-15E Strike Eagle.
However, these aircraft could have easily flown in from Turkey or any number of bases in continental Europe or the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, such as the island of Cyprus. Approaching from the east or the south is still a possibility, albeit a less likely one. Given the proximity of Baghdadi's compound to the Turkish border – Barisha is less than five miles to the south – any aircraft that didn't need to be flying overhead, such as the drones and helicopters providing overwatch support, would not have even had to enter Syria, necessarily. They could have been orbiting in Turkish airspace and still be in a position to be over the target area literally in a matter of seconds, if need be.
We also still don't know when and how an unknown number of AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missiles were employed during the operation. The video that CENTCOM released that it says showed precision-guided "U.S. stand-off munitions" destroying the compound does not appear to show these weapons, but rather unpowered, guided bombs, such as GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). Depending on the release altitude, JDAMs can hit targets around 15 miles away, which would still have given them some stand-off range, especially, again, considering the location of the target to the Turkish border. They could have been dropped inside of Turkey and still hit their target with a large margin to spare.
The use of the JASSMs is puzzling, especially given the compound's proximity to Turkey. The only reason we can think of as to why JASSMs would have been employed is if another strike was deemed necessary sometime after the entire operation wrapped up and all the contingency forces had left the area. Such an act would make some sense if bomb damage assessments showed that the compound was not destroyed to the level of satisfaction of commanders. Thus, another strike would be needed. Doing so with JASSM, which can be launched hundreds of miles away and needs no support of any kind to execute its mission, would make some sense under those circumstances.
General McKenzie could not speak to the electronic or other forms of intelligence recovered at the scene, but said, not surprisingly, that it would be exploited to the full extent and would likely help in the targeting of other senior ISIS members. It is not clear whether or not any information acquired from Baghdadi's compound contributed to other operations against the terrorist group's leadership in the immediate aftermath of the raid in Barisha, including airstrikes that led to the death of Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir. Muhajir had been Baghdadi's second in command and ISIS' principal spokesperson.
Whatever the case, McKenzie stressed that the fight against ISIS was far from over. Still, the raid in Barisha definitely took out one of history most notorious terrorists and from everything we've learned today went relatively smoothly for such a complex and dangerous operation.
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