The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marks a devastating blow for the remnants of ISIS, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Monday, asserting that the secret operation in northwest Syria was the culmination of a multi-year inter-agency effort to find the dreaded terrorist leader and then capture or kill him.
The United States joint Special Operations Forces conducted a successful raid on Saturday night resulting in the death of al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS.
"Baghdadi and the thugs who follow him were responsible for some of the most brutal atrocities of our time. His death marks a devastating blow for the remnants of ISIS who are now deprived of their inspirational leader following the destruction of their physical caliphate earlier this year," he said.
Not a single United States service member was killed in this high risk operation, he said.
"Despite Baghdadi's death the security situation in Syria remains complex. Multiple state and nonstate actors continue to buy for control of territory and resources within the country," Esper said.
Noting that it is very easy for the US to get drawn into continued conflict if objectives are not clear, Esper said that acting as a police force out to solve every dispute is not America's mission.
"Our mission in Syria today remains the same as it was when we first began operations in 2014, to enable the enduring defeat of ISIS. Our recent repositioning the forces within the country is intended to posture us to continue this mission and give the president options while returning the balance back home to the United States," he said.
"Those who remain will continue to execute counterterrorism operations while staying in close contact with the Syrians Democratic forces who have fought alongside us. Additionally the United States will retain control of oil fields in Northeast Syria," he added.
Giving details of the operation that resulted in the death of the dreaded terrorist, Mark Alexander Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said intelligence from numerous organisations throughout the Department of Defense and across the entire enter agency identified the target location approximately four miles from the Turkish border in Idlib province of Syria.
In order to reduce the risk to US forces and prevent miscalculation and escalation and action consistent with operations in the past week coordinated with appropriate militaries and other organisations in the regions to establish the confliction mechanisms, he said.
During the mission, US forces were infiltrated by helicopter and once on the objective secured the target compound. The assault force was then engaged with small arms fire and the threats were quickly eliminated.
"Our forces isolated the compound and protected all of the noncombatants. While clearing the objective US forces discovered al-Baghdadi hiding in a tunnel. The assault force closed in on Baghdadi and ended when he detonated a suicide vest," Milley said.
"Baghdadi's remains were then transported to a secure facility to confirm his identity with forensic DNA testing and the disposal of his remains has been done and is complete and was handled appropriately," the top US general said.
Responding to a question, Milley said the US had video and photos of the operation.
"We are not prepared at this time to release those. They are going through a declassification process," he said, adding that they could be released in the coming days.
"From an operational standpoint the United States military can strike any target anywhere any time," Milley said when asked how difficult it would have been to carry out this operation if he did not have troops on the ground and bases.
"We have incredible reach. We can strike anybody any time anywhere. The terrorists should be aware of that. They should have seen that now after us doing this multiple times and with regard to your question regarding the SDF we stay in continuous contact with them," Esper said.