A great many details are coming out about the raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. It’s looking like (surprise!) not all the details that President Donald Trump gave at his statement this morning were accurate, but I’d like to let things settle out a bit before trying to work through them. Trump gave out a lot of operational information, as is his wont, so at this very moment people are sifting through that information to learn more, both in the open intelligence community and in national intelligence services.
The one thing I will note is a big contradiction between Trump’s recent retreat (and then return?) from Syria and his saying that this operation had been going on for weeks. To cover for an operation like this, the smartest thing would have been to continue US operations in Syria as they had been going. That would have meant turning down President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to go after the Kurds – delay his operation at least. It’s not clear what role this contradiction played in the actual events, but I suspect it was significant.
So let’s look at what we have. Reports are coming out that Trump’s victory photograph was staged a couple of hours after the operation. It certainly looks staged. Let’s compare that photo and the photo of President Barack Obama’s team during the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
The Trump photo contains only six people, all white men, all old except Defense Secretary Mark Esper. It looks like a seventh may have been cut out of the photo at the left, with a laptop in front of him. From left to right, they are National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump, Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and a military man I don’t know. Most obviously missing is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Obama photo contains fifteen people, only two in full suit and tie.
The Obama photo is active – people are engaged with a screen to our left. The Trump photo is static, posed, about the men,particularly Trump. All of them are looking at the camera, hoping for a place in posterity, although Esper may be looking at something above the camera.
The mess of cables almost steals the center of the photo from Trump. A short red cable lies unconnected in the foreground. For a number of reasons, including security, I would have gotten those cables out of the way in the preparation for the photo. Notice the more economical arrangement of laptops in the Obama photo. Also coffee cups, which indicate an operation in progress.
The Obama photo is much more diverse – two women, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Audrey Tomason, Director for Counterterrorism for the National Security Council. Additionally, the clothes and manner of wearing them varies across the photo, as do the postures and facial expressions of the participants. Identifications of all the people in the photo at Wikipedia. It’s a team of people, each contributing something different to make the operation work.
Trump is, of course, at the center of his photo, the seal of the President of the United States just above his head, in case anyone might not recognize who this is.
Both photos show papers that may contain classified information. In both cases, I think the papers are too blurred to see much, but I am sure we will hear from the open-source intelligence folks if they can figure something out.
I’m posting this quickly to get ahead of the news flow. Already the New York Times has an article supporting my surmise about the contradiction between the retreat and this raid. It also looks like Trump was golfing rather than watching the raid, as he claimed. More later.
Update: The officer on the right is Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, the Pentagon’s deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism.