News Brief: U.S Raid In Syria Kills ISIS Leader, California Wildfires

Oct 28, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 7:51 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the world's most wanted terrorists is dead. So what does this mean for the Islamic State?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump announced the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi yesterday.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When we landed with eight helicopters, a large crew of brilliant fighters ran out of those helicopters and blew holes into the side of the building, not wanting to go through the main door because that was booby-trapped. And there was something - it was something really amazing to see.

INSKEEP: According to the president, the man who once declared himself caliph soon died underground. How much of that story is verified? And what does it mean for the region where ISIS once ruled?

GREENE: Well, let's bring in two of our correspondents. National security correspondent Greg Myre is in our studio in Washington, D.C. And we're joined by NPR's Jane Arraf, who's in Mosul, Iraq. Hello to you both.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, David.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi. Hi, David.

GREENE: Greg, I want to start with you. I mean, it's extraordinary that U.S. commandos pulled this off - we're told not experiencing any harm whatsoever. I mean, how did this go down?

MYRE: Right. I mean, for starters, I have never heard such a vivid description of a top-secret military operation by the president. He laid all this out. It was a late-night raid on Saturday with these eight helicopters, we heard, swooping in from a 70-minute flight. They had to go near areas where Russian and Syrian and Turkish troops were, real risk there.

They blasted through a wall to get into this compound. And they took fire, and they suppressed the fire, killing some of the people protecting al-Baghdadi - tracked him into a tunnel in his compound. He took three kids with him. And according to the president, he detonated his suicide vest or belt, killing himself and three kids. And then the president added all this trash talk that - saying that al-Baghdadi was whimpering and screaming and crying, that he died like a dog and died like a coward. So an incredible level of detail.

INSKEEP: Any of - all of that detail verified from other places, or just some of it?

MYRE: Well, some of it, sure. Some of this stuff there from inside the compound, we really have the president's word and nothing further.

GREENE: I want to play a clip, Greg, from the defense secretary, Mark Esper. He was on CNN describing the impact of this death.

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MARK ESPER: This is a devastating blow. This is not just their leader. It's their founder. He was an inspirational leader in many ways. He's the one that - when he formed ISIS in 2014, he led to establishing the physical caliphate throughout the region. So this is a major blow to them.

GREENE: Is this a major blow to ISIS, Greg?

MYRE: Yes. I think if you look at it in this context, al-Baghdadi ran a terror group on an unprecedented scale. I mean, they controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria. They literally erased the border between these two countries. They administered big cities, gave services, collected taxes, recruited worldwide with this very sophisticated online operation. You need a leader and a structure and organization to do all that. And that is all gone.

But I'll also add just a quick counterargument. There are still an estimated 15,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria with - and they have affiliates from North Africa to Yemen to Afghanistan. They're still carrying out attacks. So it remains a threat, a disrupter as sort of a traditional terrorist group.

GREENE: Jane, I want to turn to you. So you're in Iraq in the city of Mosul. We should remember that city was absolutely devastated by the Islamic State before it was liberated two years ago. So I wonder, how are people there - you know, people who have so much experience with ISIS - reacting to this?

ARRAF: Well, it's fascinating. We're actually just outside the very mosque where Baghdadi gave his speech declaring the caliphate, saying that he was the new leader. And we're on the street that has sprung up with little tea shops. Some of the businesses are coming back. These people who are in these shops were actually in the mosque on the day that Baghdadi gave that speech. And so we've been asking them about that, about what they thought. And they said, basically, they'd never heard of this guy before and, all of a sudden, he appears.

But here's the interesting thing. When we asked them what they think of the fact that he is now dead, they actually - a lot of them don't believe he's dead. And even more than that, some of them don't believe he ever really existed as the man who the Americans say he was. They say he was an invention. It was all a big film.

GREENE: Wow. That's fascinating. Well, I want to ask you too - I mean, it sounds like the Americans - I mean, even though they had, you know, all of this intelligence that led them to Baghdadi, the fact that he was in northwestern Syria really surprised them. Why would that be?

ARRAF: Well, he was trying to escape. So this is a guy who had had a $25 million bounty on his head. And we have to remember, we're talking about huge territory in between the Western Desert and Iraq and Syria. So they've been chasing him for a while. The idea is - the feeling is that he was potentially trying to escape to Turkey with his family.

According to the Iraqis, they say this had been going on for four months that they'd been tracking him, that they provided intelligence. But this was obviously teamwork on the part of a lot of countries. And here was a guy who had successfully hidden for most of the past five years, and that's where they found him.

GREENE: Well, Greg, I mean, Jane mentions there was teamwork here. And President Trump thanked other countries. I mean, he gave Russia top billing, we should say. But he also thanked the Syrian Kurds. And this is at a moment, of course, where the United States - after the president ordered this withdrawal of troops from Syria - where the Syrian Kurds feel really betrayed. Did this mission prove that they're - you know, how vital they really have been in their allegiance with the United States?

MYRE: Yeah. I think it was further proof, as if we needed it. I mean, it's been very clear that they've been a absolute key partner for the past several years as the United States has defeated ISIS with a very small force. And it's been the Kurds who've been doing the fighting. And the president, even as he spoke yesterday, mentioned that fresh, sensitive material was found at al-Baghdadi's compound. Well, that's something you may want to act on very quickly. And you need partners. You need to work with your friends in the region. So even the president provided evidence for that.

GREENE: Jane, what does this mean for the future of ISIS? I mean, is there a successor in place? Whoops, I think we've lost Jane Arraf in Mosul...

ARRAF: There's no clear successor...

GREENE: Oh, go ahead.

ARRAF: ...Al-Baghdadi is not known - al-Baghdadi is known to have actually directly named a successor. So that's another big potential disagreement that will take place within the organization. But successor or no successor, everyone here in Mosul...

GREENE: All right. We'll get more answers from Jane Arraf as the day goes on. International correspondent Jane Arraf in Mosul. And we had national security correspondent Greg Myre with us in the studio in Washington, D.C.

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GREENE: All right. So here in California, the governor, Gavin Newsom, has declared a statewide emergency as the state is yet again battling wildfires.

INSKEEP: The largest is the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County's wine country north of San Francisco. Ferocious winds have fueled that fire. And this next statistic gives a sense of the vast scale of things in California, including disasters. At this point, almost 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate.

GREENE: NPR's Eric Westervelt is on the ground covering this in Sonoma County. And, Eric, what do things look like there?

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David. I mean, with these really strong, at times hurricane-force winds Sunday, firefighters have actually lost ground on this blaze in the last day. I mean, containment of this fire is down from 10% to just 5%. It's burned nearly 55,000 acres, destroyed about 100 structures. No fatalities, but on Sunday, a firefighter was seriously burned and airlifted for immediate treatment.

And, David, all day, we watched these crews putting enormous resources into saving homes and trying to. I mean, we watched the ground crew and a helicopter dump, you know, basket after basket of water, working tirelessly to stop these flames from moving down just this one hillside in the fire towards a large estate and vineyard with many structures near a roadway. And, you know, finally as the flames died down, I went up to the house and spoke with Erik Komula and his crew with the Woodland Fire Department.

You guys kind of saved these homes right here.

ERIK KOMULA: Well, everybody saved the homes. I mean, the helicopter took a lot of the heat out of it. And our engine just came in behind it and just doing a little bit of mop-up, so just make sure everything's tight and everything's out. Especially with the wind, we have to.

WESTERVELT: Yeah.

David, it's just one example of sort of all the effort taken to stop some of the - these wind-driven flare-ups all across this fire. And, you know, they didn't always succeed. We saw a business burn to the ground. Some of the Soda Rock Winery's buildings dated back to 1869.

GREENE: Wow. It's always amazing to hear a firefighter - just a little mop-up. You know, the duty is much harder than they're ever going to really let on.

WESTERVELT: Absolutely.

GREENE: So we've these evacuations, as Steve mentioned. There are power outages to try and, you know, avoid causing fires. There are road closures. How are people holding up in general?

WESTERVELT: People are pretty tired and anxious up here in the fire zone. I mean, we visited an evacuation shelter where people had to flee in the middle of the night. People were tired. Many residents, you know, simple things - trying to gas up, they can't because power's off. You know, the pumps weren't working. We met an elderly woman who was a bit panicked. She'd run out of gas at this checkpoint and didn't, you know, know what to do. We gave her some food and water. And a police officer was going to try to help her.

But we saw those scenes playing out again and again. I mean, on Highway 101 - this main north-south road in the region was closed in one part for really much of yesterday, making movement and refueling hard. We met Diane Ofle as she was stuck at an exit ramp on 101. She's lived in this area for more than 40 years and says this is really the first time she's had to flee a wildfire.

DIANE OFLE: People are adapting and figuring out what to do. This is new, for us to have to evacuate. I didn't think it would happen. I'm old. This is new. This is a firestorm. This isn't just a fire.

WESTERVELT: And, David, that's the real fear here. You know, with these strong winds, which could pick up again tomorrow, they can take off so fast, you know, just like these deadly firestorms in the cities of Santa Rosa and Paradise that we've seen over the last two years here in California.

GREENE: Yeah. Those were some of the lessons from last year, I mean, that just something can happen so quickly and take out an entire community. NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting on the wildfires in Sonoma County, Calif. Eric, thanks a lot.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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