LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
From NPR News, this is Special Coverage of President Trump's announcement from the White House. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Late last night, there were reports of a military operation in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. A U.S. official said the target of that raid was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the militant leader of ISIS, and that Baghdadi is believed to be dead. With me now as we wait for the president's statement is NPR's national security correspondent, Greg Myre, and also Tamara Keith, NPR's White House correspondent.
Greg, I'm going to start with you. What details do you know right now about this raid?
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: So it looks like it took place late last night, Saturday night, in a small village called Barisha right up near the Turkish border, just about three miles or so from the border, not the place the U.S. traditionally has been operating.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. That was always near the Iraqi border, right?
MYRE: Exactly in the east.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the way across the country.
MYRE: In the northeast. And this is in the far northwest. Helicopters came in. It looked like some shooting took place for up to two hours. Several people were killed. It was a two-story house in a sort of isolated area with few other buildings around but not much. A little village, we're talking about. The fact that the U.S. is going to this particular area really suggests that it was a very special target. Everything we're hearing points to al-Baghdadi. We're waiting for President Trump to provide official word about this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should remind our listeners that Russia claimed that Baghdad had been killed in 2017. And it turned out not to be true. What will they be doing now to verify this?
MYRE: So a DNA and we're hearing that there is a body that they're checking. So - but they would need biometrics or DNA. And that's what they would use to have absolute confirmation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Daniel Estrin is with us from Beirut. There has been a tweet this morning from a Syrian Kurdish commander.
What do you know about their involvement in this operation?
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, we spoke to an aide to the Syrian Kurdish commander. And he told us that they had been cooperating on an intelligence level with the U.S., that they had been monitoring Baghdadi's movements for the last five months. And - but that the operation to nab Baghdadi was delayed, according to this Kurdish military aide, by a month because of the Turkish military operation in Syria.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's remind our listeners that this is, of course, all happening at a time when U.S. troops pulled their forces out of northern Syria, an area where they were working with the Kurdish forces and - to basically combat ISIS. And so I guess it is significant that they're saying that this operation was delayed, that they knew where Baghdadi was for a long time.
Daniel, just remind us who Baghdadi is.
ESTRIN: Well, Baghdadi is the leader of ISIS, and he declared to the ISIS caliphate from a mosque in Mosul. And for many years, he's been on the loose. And intelligence officials have been trying to find him. And he was thought to have been seeking refuge in the desert region between Iraq and Syria - so that's in the northeast of Syria. But apparently, he was found on the opposite side of the country in Idlib, which is in the northwest.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there's going to be a lot of questions, I think, about how he traversed across the country, who may have helped him in that. I'm going to bring in Tam now.
Where was Trump when this operation was going on?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Trump conducted his weekend as he normally does. So on Friday night, he actually was at Camp David. And then yesterday, he went golfing. He kept to a very normal schedule. Then last night, he was back at the White House, as he typically is on a Saturday night. And at around 9:30 pm, he tweeted something very big has just happened, exclamation point. He didn't say what it was, but, of course, now we do know. We're very close to knowing what it was. And President Trump is set to make remarks now, today from the Diplomatic Room at the White House. This is a room where he was just earlier this week, or just last week now, to talk about the cease-fire between Turkey and the Kurds, that he was claiming great victory on. This is a room where he goes to give these sort of direct-to-camera addresses to the nation typically about security matters. And the White House is treating this as a very big deal.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the president is extremely sensitive to comparisons. Obviously, the killing of Osama bin Laden can't be far from his mind. How does this moment compare if indeed it is confirmed that al-Baghdadi is dead?
KEITH: Al-Baghdadi is not Osama bin Laden in terms of sort of the outsized role that bin Laden had in the American psyche simply because of 9/11, because he was on the loose for such a very long time. You know, when bin Laden was killed, when that was announced, Americans, people in Washington, D.C., went to the streets. They went outside of - to the streets outside of the White House to celebrate. It was this sort of spontaneous outburst of celebration. This is not the same thing. Baghdadi - ISIS never had sort of the outsized role in American life that al-Qaida did. But this is significant.
This is - you know, the president is not in a great place right now. He is battling impeachment. Just over the weekend, his former chief of staff was sort of saying I told you so about having a chief of staff that would be a yes man...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And under a lot of criticism for how he's dealt with Syria up until now from, you know, his Republicans.
KEITH: From his own party, in fact. You know, just significant and strong pushback from Republicans on Capitol Hill saying that the president's moves related to Turkey in Syria were a mistake, that it was a betrayal of American Kurdish allies. And if it turns out that American Kurdish allies helped in this operation, it is quite a moment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg, I'm going to turn to you again. There was a $25 million, I believe, bounty on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's head. I mean, he, you know, really was one of the most wanted terrorists for the United States in the world. So not only for the president, but this has got to be a significant military victory, too.
MYRE: Oh, absolutely. He did something or led a movement that we had never seen before. ISIS had tens of thousands of members, fighters coming in from all over the world. They controlled massive amounts of territory in eastern Syria and western and northern Iraq, controlled several big cities - Raqqa in Syria, Mosul in Iraq - millions of people under their control. They administered cities. They collected taxes. They had this incredible online recruit presence in terms of spreading propaganda, recruiting followers. So this is a guy that sort of just emerged on the scene. I mean, he had a history but was not - you know, in 2014 is when he really sort of exploded on the scene and led this group that had done something we'd never seen before.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Daniel, this is to you. Do we know much about how Baghdadi was found? What are you hearing there?
ESTRIN: Well, as I said, the Syrian Kurdish official we spoke with said that they had been monitoring his whereabouts for about five months. The question is, how did he get to where he was reportedly found in Idlib? He reportedly, about 48 hours ago, took up residence at a house next to a displaced persons camp, where a lot of Syrians who had been displaced from the war live. And he rented out or bought this house. His wives and children moved in. And then last night, the U.S.-led coalition helicopters pummeled that site. There's a video that search and rescue teams in Syria have distributed showing that area completely flattened. You see it's a remote rural area - trees, desert mountains around and just a crater and a lot of rubble.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is going to be a question to both you, Daniel, and Greg. What does this mean for ISIS? I mean, this has obviously been a huge nemesis of the United States. As you mentioned, Greg, they had a caliphate at a certain point. They controlled vast amounts of territory. Is this the end of ISIS? I'm going to start with you, Greg, and then back to you, Daniel.
MYRE: It's not the end of ISIS. But he was a real leader. It's not somebody they can just - appoint somebody else, take over and the movement continues. So his leadership was critical. It's not entirely clear. There was some talk in August that he had - he'd named a possible successor. But the group is now scattered. There are thought to be thousands of ISIS fighters scattered around eastern Syria, western Iraq. But they're not in a coherent sort of way where they can wage major ongoing fights as a group. They don't control territory. So it will be a huge question of how ISIS can rebuild or if they can. And again, we have these several crosscurrents here. We have the U.S. forces coming out of Syria. We have the Turks, the Syrians moving into these areas. So a lot of unanswered questions but definitely a major blow to the Islamic State.
ESTRIN: Yeah. I would add, as Greg says, that this is a very symbolic victory. But the ISIS network actually has long moved on beyond Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It's functioned for a long time without him. And it largely lives on social media. Its recruiters are attracting new members. It really truly exists in many ways on social media today. And another interesting thing is that the - we've been speaking to sources inside Syria, people who've been speaking with residents in that area of Idlib. Apparently where Baghdadi was found in Idlib seems to be a place where ISIS has been comfortably regrouping. It's a place where, after the fall of the ISIS caliphate, a lot of ISIS fighters fled to that area, sought refuge and ganged up or joined up with jihadi groups in that area. And it's a place that we understand is where money is being sent out to ISIS widows and families possibly. An attack on U.S. military personnel in January was, according to the U.S.-led coalition, planned from there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're listening to Special Coverage from NPR News. We're still waiting on President Trump's announcement from the White House - expected to be about yesterday's raid in Syria that may have resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. With me are NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre, NPR's Daniel Estrin in Beirut and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, I'm going to bring you back in here. As we look at this moment, it cannot be overstated that the president is under a lot of pressure. He has an impeachment inquiry. And a lot of this is about convincing the American people about who's right. Do you think this will help him?
KEITH: Certainly it doesn't hurt him to be able to deliver a speech from the White House directly to the American people talking about a victory, talking about a decision that he made that led to this, assuming it is what we believe it is. That - you know, when a president is in trouble, being able to do foreign policy, being able to...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Show leadership.
KEITH: ...Show leadership...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have a success.
KEITH: ...Look presidential, stand before the American people, those are things that are helpful politically for presidents. Given that President Trump has spent so much of his time sort of fighting the impeachment battle, you know, lashing out - you know, last week, he held this Cabinet meeting that lasted some 71 minutes. And, you know, there were official reasons for it. But the real reason for this long Cabinet meeting was simply to sit at a large table with his Cabinet looking presidential and saying, look, I'm doing the business of the American people. Don't - you know, impeachment isn't holding me back. And this will allow him to do that in an even more significant way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg Myre, it occurs to me thinking about this that this could have sort of significant impacts on the relationships in the region. Specifically, when we think about Turkey, when we think about Iraq, these are, you know, important players in this region. How do you think this will play out there?
MYRE: I don't think we know entirely right now but obviously a lot of friction between the U.S. and Turkey. So was there any cooperation here? We've heard so far probably not...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Although, the Turks said that they were informed that this was happening.
MYRE: Exactly. Exactly. So how will the U.S. and Turkey respond? Will it improve the friction we have - that we've seen there? We've also heard Iraq might have had something to do with this. The Kurds...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everyone's claiming that they had something to do with this.
MYRE: Victory has a thousand fathers, as we know. So it could improve some ties there. But, you know, again, the U.S. forces were leaving Syria. Will this - you know, will the - will this - both inside the U.S. government, where the military was saying, well, see, this is a reason we need to be there. We need to keep cooperating and working with the Kurds. So I think there's - and we're seeing U.S. policy sort of being made on the fly about what's going to happen to these U.S. forces. And again, all very much in flux right now as we've seen Turkey send their troops into northern Syria, Syria and the Russians moving up. So everybody's on the move. And here, Baghdadi is apparently in a place he wasn't expected, so lots of moving parts right now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Daniel, when you think about the Kurdish area - and one of the things that I've seen said after this raid is that they are now concerned that this will accelerate the sort of withdrawal of U.S. forces from that area because, quite simply, they might believe that their job has done, since the original purpose of their presence was to defeat ISIS.
ESTRIN: Well, it's interesting to see how the the Syrian Kurdish commanders have been responding in the last several weeks because, on the one hand today, we're seeing a lot of congratulations - they're retweeting Donald Trump and tagging him, thanking him for this joint operation, showing that they are partners - on the other hand, extremely, extremely critical of the U.S. pulling out its troops from that area. We spoke to the top Syrian Kurdish commander several days ago at the height of the Turkish offensive. And he was saying, I have a message for President Trump - reverse this decision to pull out U.S. troops. It's been a very kinetic and kind of chaotic several couple of days and weeks, as we've seen the U.S. announce of troop withdrawal then send troops back to guard oil areas. And so it's interesting now to see the the Syrian Kurdish forces stand by the president.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Tam, let's talk about that because the president has been pretty clear that he is still fully supportive of his own decision to pull out U.S. forces from northern Syria to end, quote-unquote, "the forever wars." Could this change the trajectory in some way?
KEITH: Even as the president has been very clear about wanting to end the forever wars and saying that American troops were pulling out and that the caliphate is defeated, at the same time, he has talked about wanting to protect the oil and leaving a residual force. And the White House and administration officials have been unclear about the size or location of that residual force. So, you know, in some ways, this moment allows President Trump a moment where he can take focus away from the muddle and confusion around U.S. policy toward Syria and a civil war and the Kurdish allies and Turkey and all of that and move the focus to what is sort of a more clean, clear victory and allows the president his narrative, which is, look at this, ISIS is defeated, which he's been saying for more than a year.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg, do you have thoughts on that? Because, you know, it's very important to see what's going to happen next.
MYRE: Right. So the president has - throughout his presidency has said I want to bring these troops home. I want to get them out. And yet he never quite does it. I mean, here, we talked about a thousand troops leaving, but now some might stay. Recently, in Afghanistan, he almost reached a deal with the Taliban, but that was called off. It's very hard to get a precise number. But as best as we can determine, actually, U.S. troops in the Middle East and in these war zones have increased a bit during his presidency rather than decrease. He keeps wanting to pull them out, but events and developments...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The reality of actually - the various entanglements of the United States in that region have prevented that from happening.
MYRE: Exactly, precisely.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's always been this kind of divide - right? - between his advisers and the military and in the national security establishment and the president's own wants. Can you talk a little bit about those divisions?
MYRE: Right. I mean, I think the military and the national security community at large feels there needs to be a presence and wants to keep troops in several of these countries - Syria being a leading example there. Again, as we try to get to the bottom of this U.S. policy there, it seems that maybe the oil was used as a reason to keep the U.S. troops there. President Trump wanted to pull them out, but there was the argument, well, oil needs to be protected. We're talking about a very small amount of oil. Syria was never a big oil producer, and its oil industry has essentially ground to a halt. ISIS was making some money off the oil a few years ago, but that has really ended since they've been driven out. There's really no oil. There are oil fields, but the oil production has really ceased there. And so this is part of this back and forth between the president and his national security team.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just to remind our listeners, we're still waiting on President Trump's announcement from the White House, expected to be about yesterday's raid in Syria that may have resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. With me are NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre, who you just heard there. Daniel Estrin is in Beirut, and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here in Washington, D.C. Tamara, are you hearing anything from some of the president's supporters, from Republicans about how they're viewing this?
KEITH: Certainly, at this time, there is a lot of, you know, thanking the special forces, thanking the president for making the decision. I mean, you're even seeing that from Never-Trump Republicans, who are saying, you know, that - thanks to the president for making this call. And, you know, the White House has been unwilling to get out ahead of the president and his announcement, wanting to save any details about sort of the specifics of his decision-making process until after he has spoken.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What will be the Democrats' reaction, do you think, in this?
KEITH: You know, I think that the Democrats' reaction may not be that different from the Never-Trumper reaction that I've seen, which is simply to say...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're going to have to interrupt here. Here's President Trump's announcement from the White House. Let's listen.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is Special Coverage from NPR News. You're listening to President Trump, who says U.S. forces have killed the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're listening to Special Coverage from NPR News.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: He died like a dog. He died like a coward. We've been listening to President Trump announcing the death of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a raid in northern Syria in a news conference at the White House. With me are NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Greg, let's recap. What did we hear?
MYRE: Pretty remarkable level of detail...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I thought so.
MYRE: ...About this raid. Absolutely. So he says eight U.S. helicopters went into this small village in northwestern Syria late last night. They took fire as they came in. They shot their way or blasted their way through walls, went into this compound. They suppressed the fire. They were looking for al-Baghdadi. They chased him down. Dogs were apparently involved in this chase. Baghdadi apparently went into a tunnel. He gave the impression that was underground. We don't...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We don't know.
MYRE: ...Know that for sure. But...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it was a dead-end tunnel.
MYRE: A dead-end tunnel. He took three kids with him. And when he was trapped at this dead-end tunnel, he detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and apparently the three children with him. The dog was injured. But that was apparently the only American casualty. Other people with Baghdadi in his compound were killed. The president also said this was a very - perhaps one of the more dangerous parts was just flying in and out of this region because it's not a place where the U.S. operates - had to get permission, talked with the Russians to make sure the Russians didn't shoot down any aircraft, talked to Turkey, coordinated with them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because this is an active conflict area at the moment.
MYRE: Absolutely. There's a lot of rebel groups in Syria, and the Syrian and Russian forces are around there, not an area where the U.S. has been operating. So he went into great detail and at great length. He also said material - sensitive material was captured. But he also said this wasn't going to change his larger plans for Syria, that he was still withdrawing most of the U.S. troops except for this oil region, which is in the far, far east of the country, not the northwest where this raid took place.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk a little bit about the oil region because we did hear some comments that he made and we should fact-check them about exactly what the U.S. role will - with these oil depots or what - what are they? What is there and why is he talking about the oil in northern Syria?
MYRE: Right. And it's a bit mystifying all the way through. Syria has oil. It's in the eastern and northeastern part of the country. But it was a modest oil producer - produced enough oil for itself and a tiny bit of export, even before the war. As the war went on, ISIS controlled that territory and were able in a very sort of crude fashion to get some of that oil out of the ground, smuggle it across the border, make money off of it. But after they've been driven out for the past couple years, that area, the oil is still in the ground. But the U.S. has bombed the facilities. They're greatly damage. The Kurds are getting a minuscule amount. I mean, we're talking reports of 10,000, 20,000 barrels a day. So the president is not only talking about securing it and keeping it out of ISIS' hands, which seems unrealistic given the state of ISIS today, but also talking about it as if it has tremendous economic value. He even cited the possibility of I may want to make a deal and let somebody like Exxon Mobile go in. I mean, this is a tie - a war zone, a tiny amount of oil...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And also territory that the U.S. does not control and is not part of sovereign U.S. territory. It's part of Syria, you know, technically. And so what role the U.S. could have about brokering some kind of oil deal is mystifying. I'm going to bring you in, Tam. A lot of things that are striking about this and the way that the president spoke of this. You know, again, it's very, very surprising to get so many details.
KEITH: The president was extremely - I don't think we can overstate how graphic he was in describing this, talking in very specific detail about Baghdadi going into a tunnel with three children, saying that he died a coward whimpering and screaming - just truly remarkable to hear the president of the United States in some way sort of spiking the football in a very just graphic way, saying that maybe he would even want this video to get out so that ISIS fighters could see it and see that Baghdadi wasn't some kind of hero. And then going back to the conversation you were just having about oil, you know, it's sort of remarkable that the president came out to announce this - sort of this victory, this successful mission. And then he got sidetracked and started talking about oil. And he said the words, we should be able to take some, which is remarkable for a president to say about another country's resources.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. And I guess it is striking simply because, you know, this is a very important moment, frankly. You know, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a wanted terrorist. He has been wanted by Iraq. He has been wanted by Syria. He does not have a lot of friends in this region. And so this is a moment where the United States can rightly say we cooperated with a lot of the people in the region. And we actually got something that we wanted done. And yet he goes into this conversation about oil.
Tam, the other thing that struck me is his rhetoric saying he had been looking for Baghdadi for three years.
KEITH: Yeah, President Trump is personalizing this in a pretty remarkable way. You know, with past operations, presidents if - let's say President Obama announcing the bin Laden raid. It was a very somber announcement. He did not go into details about how the raid was carried out. President - and then there were, like, briefings afterwards. And there was actually a lot of criticism about the level of detail that came out from Obama administration officials. Well, President Trump is on live TV answering questions from reporters, getting into very specific details about how it worked saying that he was in the Situation Room watching it like it was a movie, he says. He says that it started a little bit after 5 p.m., that he watched on video monitors. And he has now gone into detail about how they identified him, that they brought lab technicians, he said, with them. They got his DNA. They had to remove debris to get his body. And the president is telling reporters that after about 15 minutes, they were able to confirm that it was Baghdadi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg, looking at this, one of the other things that the president was very clear about, that this was a message to all the other terrorists in the region, all the other terrorist organizations saying that the successors to ISIS will also be hunted down essentially.
MYRE: Right. He said this was part of his larger commitment to going after terrorist groups. But this has always been a bit of a mixed message. At the same time, he was saying I was part of - we knew about this, we scoped this out a couple weeks ago, we were tracking al-Baghdadi. At the same time, he's pulling U.S. forces out of the - out of Syria where there are thousands of ISIS fighters sort of underground. And, again, as we will recall a couple months ago, he's talking about pulling out of Afghanistan. So he keeps talking about how hard he's hitting and going to hit terrorist groups but also wants to get U.S. troops out of the region. It's hard to sort of square that circle.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just briefly, when he was talking, he said that this had been in the works for two weeks. So this is an operation that actually wasn't sort of reactive coming in at the last minute but that this had actually been quite thoroughly planned.
MYRE: Right. He made that very clear and, again, completely overlapping with what's been in the news in talk - in terms of talking about the withdrawal but not something that happened last minute. It had been in the works for - two weeks was the timeframe he mentioned.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he thanked a lot of the countries in the region, which, again, surprising some of them.
MYRE: Absolutely. Syria, for example.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: For example.
MYRE: Russia, for example.
KEITH: Well, and he said Russia first.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, he did.
KEITH: That was the first country he thanked.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, considering the geopolitical realities of the conflict in Syria where actually Russia is at odds or has been at odds with the United States and is a great ally of the Syrian leader, it is surprising that he would have mentioned those first in the same breath as Turkey, who the United States is also having a conflict with, and then Iraq, which really is an ally of the United States in every single way.
MYRE: Right. So he sort of went across the board, both allies and rivals in the region. So, yes, that was very surprising. And he said that they did give - he, again, specifically cited that Russia and Turkey were informed that U.S. troops were coming in in helicopters but were not told what the target was for this mission.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. We're just going to recap the latest news. President Trump has announced the death of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a raid in northern Syria in a news conference at the White House. Joining me has been NPR's national security correspondent, Greg Myre. Thank you.
MYRE: My pleasure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.
KEITH: You're welcome.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have been listening to NPR Special Coverage of President Trump's announcement from the White House. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and you're listening to NPR News.
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