On Saturday night, approximately 70 special operators hailing from Delta Force’s A Squadron and the 75th Ranger Regiment stormed a compound in the Idlib Province of Northeast Syria, successfully neutralizing one of history’s most despotic leaders, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The mission has been hailed as a complete success, with no American troops lost and one service dog injured, but amidst all the media hype surrounding this story, it’s easy to forget just how dangerous this operation was for the troops involved before they ever even put their boots on the ground.

According to SOFREP sources within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the U.S. Army’s legendary 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), also commonly known as the Nightstalkers, were the aviation unit tasked with ferrying Delta and the Rangers in and out of the fight. In total, eight helicopters (a combination of MH-60 Blackhawks and MH-47 Chinooks) participated. And it seems the engagement that ultimately ended with al-Baghdadi taking his own life actually kicked off well before America’s special operators were anywhere near the compound.

Although not yet publicly disclosed, sources within JSOC confirmed for SOFREP that the assault force launched from Erbil, Iraq — some 450 miles away from al-Baghdadi’s compound. This is a far greater distance to cover by air en route to an objective than during the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, greatly increasing the risk of early warning for the target as well as exposing aircraft and personnel to a greater likelihood of ground-to-air engagement. In order to make this flight less dangerous, the Russian military was notified of the impending raid so as to limit the chances that the American aircraft might be engaged by Russian or Syrian air defense assets.

 Two MC-130J Commando II tankers were assigned to support the operation for mid-air refueling, which would have been necessary based on the length of distances at play. The Boeing MH-47 Chinook has an operational range of around 400 miles and the MH-60 beats that by an additional 50 miles or so (barring modifications made by SOCOM). Both of these platforms are capable of mid-air refueling and would have needed to at least once during the operation. It remains unclear whether the helicopters returned to Erbil following the raid or if they headed for a closer airbase, such as the U.K. Royal Air Force Base at Akrotiri on Cyprus, though President Trump has stated that they departed along an identical route to the one they came in on.

Left: The distance covered in Saturday’s operation against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Right: Distance covered in 2011 operation that killed Osama Bin Laden

The eight-helicopter formation, which SOFREP has confirmed was comprised of MH-60 Blackhawks and MH-47 Chinooks, was forced to fly over enemy-held territory en route to the compound and began taking fire from the ground before reaching their final destination. Flying under cover of darkness into heavily contested airspace with a truckload of special operators in the back may be business as usual for the elite aviators of the 160th, but that doesn’t make enemy fire any less dangerous. Fortunately, the inbound aircraft received direct support from an as-yet unconfirmed number of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles conducting airstrikes against ground targets deemed a threat along their route.

Once on-site, the helicopters were again engaged by small arms fire before the troops were able to egress. These threats were reportedly neutralized from the air, with subsequent local reports claiming to have found shell casings associated with an M230 30mm automatic cannon on the ground in the area. This chain-driven, single-barrel autocannon is commonly found on aircraft like the AH-64 Apache, but it is possible that an M230 or similar platform could have been mounted on an MH-60 or MH-47. The 160th has been known to mount the M230 on MH-60L/M Black Hawks when equipped for its Direct Action Penetrator configuration — which this operation would have called for.

A MH-60L DAP (Direct Air Penetrator) helicopter of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). (US Army)

This footage reportedly shows the area in which the battle took place.

From there, it was up to Delta and the Rangers to do what they do best. But even after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took his own life and the American commandos spent hours picking the compound apart for any actionable intelligence, the mission still wasn’t over. With all of the U.S. troops exfiltrated from the scene, F-15E Strike Eagles were called in to conduct an airstrike on the compound, leveling it so it couldn’t serve as a standing memorial for the slain al-Baghdadi for his followers that remain.