While Donald Trump was quick to claim the credit and the glory today for the U.S. military operation that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi late yesterday, military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said that the raid succeeded in spite of the president rather than due to any of his actions or intent.
In the aftermath of the raid, details of the operation are leaking out and revealed that the information about the elusive ISIS leader’s whereabouts was first discovered last summer when one of al-Baghdadi’s wives and a courier whom he used to communicate with other ISIS cells were captured and interrogated, according to an account in The New York Times.
With that crucial information in hand, CIA officers collaborated with their counterparts in Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence agencies to get more precise details of the ISIS head’s exact location and to begin to surveil his activities.
Trump’s sudden and unexpected announcement that he would withdraw American troops from northern Syria, however, threatened to undermine the months of highly detailed planning that was underway to capture al-Baghdadi.
Instead, military command was forced to initiate a risky night-time mission on a tight schedule before “their ability to control troops and spies and reconnaissance aircraft disappeared,” intelligence officials told The New York Times.
“Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death, they said, occurred largely in spite of Mr. Trump’s actions,” the newspaper reorted.
The counterterrorism experts who spoke to The Times heaped kudos upon the Kurds who assisted the operation, saying that they continued to cooperate and offer crucial information to U.S. intelligence officials even after they were abandoned by Trump to face the invading Turkish forces he agreed to allow to fill the void left by the withdrawing American troops.
One official told the newspaper that both Syrian and Iraqi Kurds provided the bulk of the intelligence for the raid, more than any other single country involved.
While the planning for the mission began as early as this past summer, the fact that al-Baghdadi was holed up deep in an Al Qaeda-controlled region that had its airspace patrolled by both Syria and Russia made the execution of the mission extremely risky.
The danger was highlighted by the news that at least two prior attempts at launching the mission were called off at the last minute by the military commanders in charge of executing it.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told ABC’s This Week earlier today that “it wasn’t until Thursday and then Friday the president chose his option and gave us the green light to proceed as we did yesterday.”
Esper refused to answer when questioned as to whether the U.S. would have been able to execute the helicopter mission against Mr. Baghdadi’s compound if — as Trump had originally planned — American troops had been completely removed from Syria, saying on CNN‘s State of the Union that “I’d have to consult with our commanders about that.”
As usual Donald Trump is trying to take credit for a success that not only did he have little to do with — outside of giving a thumbs up to the operation— but one that his own decision making made infinitely more dangerous for its direct participants, those brave American soldiers who put their lives on the line in a way that Trump never has and never will.
One has to wonder whether Trump’s approval of the perilous mission was predicated on his need for something to distract the public from his impeachment woes or if he even understood the dangers involved with the forces helicoptered into hostile territory while he continued with his golfing.
Either way, the president is surely as grateful as he ever manages to muster for the temporary reprieve from the unrelentingly negative news about his conduct currently being investigated by Congress.
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Original reporting by Eric Schmitt and