At a news conference two days later, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of the United States Central Command, displayed aerial footage and images of the raid on an isolated compound that led to Baghdadi’s death. The images did not clearly show Baghdadi himself at any point, but depicted a gunfight at a walled compound.
It is not yet clear if more footage could ultimately be released. But the move marks another key difference in Trump’s handling of Baghdadi’s death with President Barack Obama’s 2011 operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, the founder of extremist group al-Qaeda.
In that case, Obama refused to release images of bin Laden’s body, citing national security concerns. No video footage of the raid has ever been released by the U.S. government.
What video footage might exist of bin Laden’s death, if any, is unclear. CBS News reported in 2011 that 25 helmet cams had recorded the entire bin Laden raid, including the death of the al-Qaeda leader. But a later report from the New Yorker disputed this, saying that officials had watched real-time footage of the target from an unarmed RQ-170 drone.
More unambiguous, though no less contentious, were the photos of bin Laden’s body. On May 4, two days after the raid that killed the extremist leader, Obama announced that although the United States was in possession of photos of bin Laden’s body, it would not release them, as they could pose a “national security risk.”
“It’s important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” Obama said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”
Officials told reporters that bin Laden’s body was buried at sea in accordance with Islamic tradition. Images of the body were shown to members of Congress, who told reporters that the images showed a badly disfigured corpse and who disagreed on whether the photographs should be released.
Attempts to legally force the release of the images have failed. In May 2013, a federal appeals court ruled that the release of postmortem images of the al-Qaeda leader could cause “exceptionally grave harm” to Americans, rejecting the calls of the conservative group Judicial Watch. It is suspected that any photographs of the body may have been deliberately destroyed.
The lack of photographic evidence of bin Laden’s death led to unwanted scrutiny — already intense because of a number of discrepancies in official accounts of the killing that the White House blamed on the “fog of war.” Fake images of bin Laden’s body spread after his death, while a request from Abdullah bin Laden, Osama’s son, for an official death certificate was later denied.
If the Trump administration decides to release footage of the raid that led to Baghdadi’s death, it may help quell similar speculation. It may also allow Trump to bask further in a foreign policy move he is proud of. But for those who remember the bin Laden raid, there are worries that releasing the footage could lead to the consequences Obama had hoped to avoid.
Describing her concern after hearing Trump describe Baghdadi’s death on Sunday, Dana Shell Smith, deputy assistant secretary of state for international media engagement at the time of bin Laden’s death, warned that a celebratory tone could “damage our deserved claim to the moral high ground.”
This post was originally published on Monday. It has been updated.