United States Special Operations commandos carried out a risky raid in northwestern Syria on Saturday against a senior terrorist leader there, two senior administration officials said late Saturday.
The identity of the target was not confirmed, but President Trump was scheduled to make a statement on Sunday morning.
A senior American official said commandos and analysts were still seeking to confirm the identity of the terrorist, who the officials said was killed in the operation when he exploded his suicide vest.
But a person close to President Trump said that the target of the raid was believed to be the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A senior administration official said that the president had approved the mission.
Officials said the raid was in Idlib Province, hundreds of miles from the area along the Syrian-Iraqi border where Mr. Baghdadi was long believed to be hiding. Idlib is dominated by jihadist rebel groups hostile to him.
An American official said that commandos from the Army’s elite Delta Force carried out the mission with the C.I.A. providing intelligence and reconnaissance information on the ground.
Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., as deputy commander of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, oversaw the mission, which had been staged for a week before taking place on Saturday, an American official said.
Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment but said that in addition to Mr. Trump’s statement on Sunday morning, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper would appear on the morning shows to discuss developments in Syria. Mr. Esper had not been previously scheduled as a guest.
The raid came as the United States continued to withdraw hundreds of troops from northern Syria who had been conducting counterterrorism missions, while sending in several hundred other forces to guard eastern oil fields in Syria against the Islamic State.
Some analysts expressed skepticism that Mr. Baghdadi would be hiding in Idlib, in northwest Syria. He was always thought to be hiding in the borderlands between Iraq and Syria in the heart of the Islamic State’s former caliphate, or religious state.
The dominant group in Idlib is a jihadist organization called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, which was linked to Al Qaeda. They and ISIS are rivals so it would be surprising if Mr. Baghdadi were hiding in Idlib. But hundreds of ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq and northeastern Syria are believed to be hiding in the northwest, some even joining their former Qaeda rivals, so analysts said it is possible Mr. Baghdadi found refuge with them.
The Islamic State has not had a significant presence in Idlib for many years since they were chased out of northwest Syria by angry rebels.
An American official said on Saturday night that senior military officials had decided that, with American forces largely withdrawing from Syria, commandos should take action quickly to try to kill or capture senior terrorists in northwest Syria before the United States lost that ability.
Amid reports Saturday of U.S. military helicopters over the Syria's northwestern Idlib province, a senior Pentagon official familiar with the operation and Army official briefed on the matter told Newsweek that Baghdadi was the target of the top-secret operation in the last bastion of the country's Islamist-dominated opposition, a faction that has clashed with ISIS in recent years.
A U.S. Army official briefed on the results of the operation told Newsweek that Baghdadi was killed in the raid, and the Defense Department told the White House they have "high confidence" that the high-value target killed was Baghdadi, but further verification is pending DNA and biometric testing. The senior Pentagon official said there was a brief firefight when U.S. forces entered the compound in Idlib's Barisha village and that Baghdadi then killed himself by detonating a suicide vest. Family members were present. According to Pentagon sources, no children were harmed in the raid but two Baghdadi wives were killed after detonating their own explosive vests.
Members of the Joint Special Operations Command's Delta Team carried out Saturday's high-level operation after receiving actionable intelligence, according to sources familiar with the operation. The location raided by special operations troops had been under surveillance for some time.
The senior Pentagon official told Newsweek that the compound in which Baghdadi was located was then taken out with an airstrike in order to prevent the site from becoming a shrine to the leader. Turkey, a NATO ally backing local insurgents, was not notified prior to the operation, the official said.
On Saturday night, after the operation had concluded, President Trump tweeted: "Something very big has just happened!" The White House announced later that the president will make a "major statement" Sunday at 9:00 a.m.
Baghdadi, an Iraqi national, is an ultraconservative cleric who became active in the Islamist insurgency against U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He was held by U.S. forces in the detention centers of Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, where a number of future jihadi leaders rubbed shoulders while in military custody.
He went on to join Al-Qaeda in Iraq, rising up the ranks of the violent group as it merged with others to form the Islamic State of Iraq and eventually inherited its leadership in 2010, when his predecessor was killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation. As the group took advantage of a U.S. military exit to further expand, he renamed the group to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—or the Levant—better known as ISIS, in 2013, seeking to expand to neighboring Syria, where a civil war was raging.
Baghdadi's forces made lightning gains across both Iraq and Syria, and in 2014 he declared his group a global caliphate from the Grand Al-Nuri Mosque in Iraq's second city of Mosul in his only known public appearance as ISIS leader. Officially known from then on simply as the Islamic State, the group began to grab world attention not only for atrocities committed across the region, but in high-profile strikes on civilians in the West as well.
The United States involved itself in Syria by backing groups trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in an uprising also supported by Turkey and other regional powers. The Pentagon began to realign itself by partnering with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces as ISIS grew increasingly powerful, Islamists overtook the opposition and Russia joined Iran in backing Assad against these factions.