WASHINGTON - A high-risk raid last week that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is expected to temporarily disrupt the group's activities, but the militants are likely to regroup and may launch revenge attacks against the United States, a senior U.S. commander said Wednesday.
"It will take some time to reestablish someone to lead the organization, and during that period of time, their actions may be a little bit disjointed," Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie Jr., who heads the U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon. "We don't see a bloodless future, because unfortunately this ideology is going to be out there."
Long-term success against the Islamic State and other extremist groups will not entail the elimination of such ideologies, McKenzie said, but would include a situation in which local security forces contain threats and the United States ensures that such groups aren't able to directly threaten the United States. He said U.S. forces were positioned against near-term counterattacks.
McKenzie spoke as the Pentagon for the first time released video and photos showing portions of the operation targeting Baghdadi in his hideout in northwest Syria's Idlib province.
The imagery adds to the public's understanding of an operation that President Donald Trump has claimed as a major foreign policy victory at a time when he is facing an impeachment inquiry and criticism over his larger Syria policy.
Grainy black-and-white video aired as McKenzie addressed reporters showed a team of Special Operations troops, who were drawn in part from the Army's secretive Delta Force, approaching a walled compound near the village of Barisha, in an area close to the Turkish border that is rife with assorted extremist groups.
Providing an overview of the operation, McKenzie said that he, with authorization from the White House, gave the order to begin the operation around 9 a.m. local time on Saturday, Oct. 26 from Centcom headquarters in Tampa.
McKenzie said the Pentagon believed Baghdadi was in hiding in Idlib "to avoid the intense pressure" that U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces had put on the group elsewhere. There were no other Islamic State forces believed to be in the immediate area, he said.
As U.S. troops approached in their helicopters, a group of unidentified militants fired on the U.S. aircraft, which were backed by drones and fighter jets. Another video showed airstrikes launched by helicopter against those fighters.
Once they had established control of the compound, McKenzie said, the troops detained and then released a group of civilians, including 11 children. Five adults - four women and one man - were killed at the compound in addition to Baghdadi. They did not fire at U.S. troops, but several of them wore suicide vests and did not respond to verbal cues to cooperate.
McKenzie said that, in part due to information provided by people questioned at the compound and, he suggested, intelligence obtained before the raid, Baghdadi was discovered hiding in an underground hole or tunnel.
Officials have said that a disaffected Islamic State operative provided key intelligence that helped identify Baghdadi's location.
The general said that although the administration originally had said Baghdadi had taken three children with him into the tunnel, who were killed in his suicide blast, officials now believe there were only two children with him. Both were under the age of 12, he said.
McKenzie did not directly corroborate Trump's statement, which he made during wide-ranging remarks on Sunday while announcing the operation, that Baghdadi was "whimpering and crying" during his final moments. Asked in the days since about that assertion, other Pentagon leaders have said they were unable to confirm Trump's depiction.
When questioned about the same remarks, McKenzie said he could only share his "empirical observation" about what had happened.
"I can tell you this: He crawled into a hole with two small children and blew himself up while his people stayed on the ground, so you can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity," he said.
McKenzie said Baghdadi may have fired at U.S. forces from his tunnel before he detonated his vest.
Two suspected militants were detained and taken from the site, and U.S. airstrikes then flattened the compound. He said Baghdadi's identity was established via DNA analysis of a sample taken during his time at a U.S. prison in Iraq. Baghdadi's remains were buried at sea within 24 hours of his death.
The general said recent changes to the U.S. posture in Syria did not affect planning for the operation.
The raid took place as the Pentagon scrambles to reorient its campaign against the Islamic State, which no longer holds territory but, officials say, remains a potent threat in the wake of Trump's withdrawal of forces from the area along the Turkish border. Critics have said that decision enabled a Turkish military offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces that have been the main U.S. partner against the Islamic State in Syria, which in turn has permitted the Syrian government and its ally Russia to move into territory that was off-limits to them for years.
McKenzie said the Pentagon was reinforcing positions around oil fields in eastern Syria, with the goal of ensuring the Islamic State cannot fund insurgent activities with oil revenue. Trump has suggested that U.S. companies might exploit those energy resources.
Also on Wednesday, the Syrian government called on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led force whose partnership with Washington was threatened by the recent American repositioning, to join Syrian army units "to confront the Turkish aggression that is threatening Syrian territory," the Syrian Arab News Agency said.
"The Defense Minister stressed that Syria faces a single enemy and the sons of Syria must be united in fighting, Arabs and Kurds, our blood to recover every inch of territory of beloved Syria," the state news agency said.
After U.S. forces withdrew from observation points in northern Syria, the SDF struck a deal with the Damascus government to help protect it from the Turkish offensive.
This article was written by Missy Ryan, a reporter for The Washington Post.