Trump vs. New York Times: The Story Behind President's Claim of 'Foiled Assassination' of ISIS Leader Baghdadi

President Donald Trump continued his attack on the press over the weekend. His target was a familiar one, The New York Times, but his claim was new: that the newspaper had “foiled” the attempted killing of Islamic State militant group (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist, Al-Baghdadi,” he wrote on Saturday. “Their sick agenda over National Security.”

His tweet caused consternation among observers, as he did not specify exactly how the newspaper had hampered such a vital operation. A spokesperson for the newspaper, the biggest in the world, on Sunday asked the White House to clarify the tweet, and the newspaper, in a retaliatory article, said that Trump was “wrongly” citing information.

Where from? It appeared to be based on a report broadcast by one of his favorite platforms: Fox News. The conservative broadcaster had earlier reported that the newspaper had leaked information that had prevented U.S. forces from eliminating the world’s most-wanted extremist.

Fox & Friends presenter Clayton Morris said the ISIS chief was able to “sneak away” because of a New York Times article. Co-host Pete Hegseth said the U.S. "would have had al-Baghdadi based on the intelligence that we had, except someone leaked information to the failing New York Times."

But what exactly were Trump and Fox News referring to?

Some surmised that Trump’s tweet had to do with the recent conflicting reports of Baghdadi’s status. Russian, Iranian and Syrian monitors have alleged that Baghdadi was killed in a May air strike in Syria, while U.S.-led coalition and Kurdish officials have said they have no evidence that he is dead. Yet the back and forth on these reports seemingly had nothing to do with Trump’s claim.

The Fox News segment cited Gen. Tony Thomas, chief of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command, who said a lead on Baghdadi’s location in mid-2015 “went dead” after information was leaked “in a prominent national newspaper about a week later,” without elaborating.

The New York Times, in its reaction to the president's claim, deduced that the subject of the president and news channel’s finger-pointing was an Eric Schmitt article published on June 8, 2015. The report revealed new information about a raid that resulted in the killing of a top ISIS commander and the group’s oil chief, Abu Sayyaf, in eastern Syria more than three weeks earlier. In that raid, two dozen Delta Force commandos flew military helicopters and aircraft into Syria from Iraq to launch the operation that was initially intended to secure Abu Sayyaf's capture.

Baghdadi ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi making his first public appearance at a mosque in the center of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted online on July 5, 2014. Reuters/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

The New York Times issued a rebuttal to the claims of Trump, Fox News and Thomas. It said its report was not published a week after the raid but 23 days later. It charged that the May 16 raid, the killing of Sayyaf and capture of his wife, Umm Sayyaf, were widely reported in its immediate aftermath, even in a Pentagon press release. The paper said all this information would have tipped off Baghdadi before the Times report three weeks later, already forcing him to rethink his tactics.

The new details it obtained and published were gathered through information U.S. officials gave to the newspaper who knew that the intelligence would be made public, it said. The newspaper added that the Pentagon “raised no objection” with the report before its publication.

What was this new information that the Times reported?

The report said that U.S. special forces had retrieved “valuable information” from the raid on Abu Sayyaf’s compound in eastern Syria, including four to seven terabytes of data providing information on not only how the jihadi group operates but also its elusive leader, Baghdadi. 

The New York Times report included details such as how Baghdadi held meetings in Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, with ISIS's regional emirs who were picked up by specially appointed drivers and told to hand over their mobile phones so U.S. intelligence could not track them.

The report also revealed the importance of the wives of senior ISIS leaders, who passed key information between each other and then on to their husbands, for whom the original messages were intended.

It also reported that coalition forces had flown Umm Sayyaf, the oil chief's wife, out of Syria for questioning. But then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had revealed this weeks earlier, the day after the raid. "U.S. forces captured Umm Sayyaf, who we suspect is a member of ISIL, played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities and may have been complicit in what appears to have been the enslavement of a young Yazidi woman rescued last night,” he said, using another acronym for ISIS.

The newspaper disclosed that the information that led to the raid on Abu Sayyaf's hideout was gained by an informant inside the group, a detail that could have placed this source in danger.

The claim on the part of Trump, Fox News and Thomas appears to be that The New York Times’ disclosure of Baghdadi’s modus operandi in evading capture or death led him to changing how he works and therefore gave him a greater chance of avoiding capture.

But the newspaper is not taking the matter lightly. On Sunday, its spokeswoman, Danielle Rhodes, demanded an “on-air apology and tweet” from Fox & Friends for its report on Saturday.

Fox & Friends will "provide an updated story to viewers tomorrow morning based on the FoxNews.com report,” the broadcaster said in a statement on Sunday in reaction to the Times.

Members of the New York Times’ newsroom will be waiting with anticipation on Monday to see Fox News’s next move. But the early exchanges of the dispute, inflamed by the president’s tweet, indicate that this war of words is not over yet.

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