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ISIS Leader Killed In U.S. Raid. What's Next For The Terrorist Group?


We're going to begin this hour with that major announcement today from President Trump. In a morning press conference at the White House, the president announced that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been eliminated. That was Trump's word. Al-Baghdadi was one of the world's most wanted figures. He was killed in his Syrian safehouse by a U.S. commando raid. We're going to have several conversations about this, about who al-Baghdadi was and what this means for the region. And we're going to start with NPR's Daniel Estrin in Beirut and national security correspondent Greg Myre here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

And, Greg, I'm going to start with you. Let's first start with the details - the timeline of the operation.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: President Trump gave a vivid cinematic description of what happened here. He said eight American helicopters went into this small village. They land. They don't go into the front of this compound. They blast through the walls. They enter it. They track down al-Baghdadi. And the president says that al-Baghdadi has a suicide vest and three kids with him. He detonates this, killing himself, killing the kids. No American casualties except for a military dog.

MARTIN: I think a number of people have been struck by the level of detail that the president, you know, offered here, including descriptions of what he claims were al-Baghdadi's last moments. Did that strike you as a person who's covered these issues for some time? Was it unusual for that kind of announcement?

MYRE: Beyond unusual - actually, quite remarkable. I mean, this would all fall under the category of classified, top-secret information. And for him to just come out and riff and take questions on this, providing this granular level of detail, was quite striking. And then his defense secretary came on and was - Mark Esper - and was much more tight-lipped about the whole operation.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, let me turn to you. What's been the reaction in the region? I mean, you're in Lebanon at the moment, and - but you've been following this throughout the region, including in Syria. What's been the reaction there?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: We've been hearing a whole mix of reaction from inside Syria. We spoke with a researcher in the city of Raqqa. He's been researching ISIS crimes in the city when ISIS was there. And he says this is a moment of celebration. You know, Trump gave a list of the victims of ISIS. He mentioned American journalists, humanitarian aid workers killed, Christians killed, Yazidis killed. But actually, most of ISIS's victims were Muslims. And just in Syria alone, approximately 6,000 civilians were killed by ISIS.

So Syrian civilians feel very strongly about this man. But there is a lot of skepticism. This researcher, the Syrian man we spoke with, thought the U.S. had its own interests in killing Baghdadi. He said the U.S. wants to grab Syrian oil, which we heard Trump speak about.

We're also hearing from many Syrians who are skeptical that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually died. They've heard several times before in the past that he had died - turned out to be fake news. They say we haven't seen the pictures. How do we know for sure? And we also reached a few Syrians in Idlib, the city where al-Baghdadi was reportedly given safe haven and was targeted. People living there seemed very careful with their words or didn't want to speak at all, and they could be scared of retribution from ISIS.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, the president thanked many countries in his announcement, starting with Russia and Turkey, then including Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Kurds as well, but in that order. And that was striking to a number of people. What about that? I mean, does that show that the Kurds are still important players in fighting the extremist threat, despite President Trump's decision to back away from them?

ESTRIN: Well, it's been very interesting to hear how the SDF - the Kurdish-led forces in Syria - have been speaking about what happened today. First of all, their top commander said that they had been tracking Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's movements and location for the last five months, that they were part of the intelligence cooperation and planning for the U.S. to nab al-Baghdadi, but that that operation was delayed by a month because of the recent Turkish offensive.

After we heard that al-Baghdadi was killed, they praised the operation. They said it was a joint Kurdish-U.S. operation. Just days ago, though, we heard from the top commander that they were very upset with Donald Trump for withdrawing U.S. troops and leaving them exposed to a Turkish offensive.

MARTIN: Well, (unintelligible) Greg, this comes at a time when, as Daniel just pointed out, the president is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, putting a stop to what he has called endless wars. Is there a contradiction in U.S. policy, then, between wanting to destroy ISIS and other terror groups overseas but still wanting to bring U.S. forces home? I mean, is there a contradiction in U.S. policy here?

MYRE: A fundamental contradiction that's existed throughout the president's time in office. We're going to hit all of these groups, whether it's ISIS or the Taliban or al-Qaida. But it's time to bring Americans home. And the president seems not bothered by this contradiction today. He said we carried out a very successful operation in Syria. And yes, we're still bringing the troops home. And he seemed to see it as, see, we can do both, while critics are already saying, no, you can't. This was an operation that required special operators in the U.S. working with Kurds. And once you leave an area, the intelligence goes cold very quickly, so you can't really have it both ways. You can stay and fight, or you can leave, but hard to do both.

MARTIN: And before we let each of you go, I do want to hear from each of you on this. What is the strategic significance of the death of al-Baghdadi? Greg.

MYRE: The death of al-Baghdadi does not end ISIS. We've learned that time and again when leaders of terrorist groups are killed. However, you should also look at the number of things that have happened in the past couple of years. ISIS has lost its territory. It's lost its revenue stream. It no longer has recruits flowing in. And now they've lost a very important leader. This group is not dead. They still have lots of fighters out there. But they are in no way organized the way that they were. So they've been greatly weakened, but they still exist.

MARTIN: Daniel, what about you?

ESTRIN: It's true that ISIS isn't dead. It exists in many different permutations and groups across the region. And finally, the city Idlib is a place where we're hearing many ISIS operatives fled to that area after the fall of the ISIS territorial caliphate. And the question is, will they be able to regroup there?

MARTIN: That was NPR's Middle East correspondent Daniel Estrin in Beirut and national security correspondent Greg Myre here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much for talking to us.

ESTRIN: My pleasure.

MYRE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.