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How a U.S. military raid killed the Islamic State’s leader

President Trump on Sunday described a harrowing U.S. military assault that led to the death this weekend of the long-sought leader of the Islamic State group. Nick Schifrin, foreign affairs and defense correspondent for NewsHour, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C. to break down the raid and the president’s remarks.

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  • Hari Sreeenivasan:

    Joining me now from Washington, D.C. is Nick Schifrin, foreign affairs and defense correspondent for the NewsHour. First, let's talk about what happened during that raid.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yeah. Hari, we saw about eight helicopters, according to the President, full of special operations forces leave from what we believe to be Iraq traveling all the way across Syria. Took them about an hour and 15 minutes. The President talked about how that was the most dangerous part of this mission. When they landed, just outside of the city of Idlib, they had a brief firefight. They blew their way into the compound. And eventually, as you just reported, they chased al-Baghdadi down into a tunnel that the U.S. believed had a dead end. And that's when Baghdadi blew himself up, taking with him his three children. And there is aftermath video collected by local journalists. And you can see two things. One, evidence of a firefight. You see one van riddled with bullets. And also you see the compound completely destroyed. American jets destroyed the compound after the U.S. operation concluded. And Hari, what's interesting is this was not in an area generally associated with or controlled by ISIS at all. It's controlled by militant groups that oppose ISIS. And so it seems that U.S. intelligence officials believe that Baghdadi was being housed and protected by an al-Qaida offshoot that might have been looking for some kind of agreement with ISIS, or at least at the very least thinking of securing him.

  • Hari Sreeenivasan:

    So how did U.S. forces get this intelligence in the first place to figure out that he was in this place that he probably ought not be?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, President Trump was very clear that this was U.S. intelligence, but the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian democratic forces, who the U.S. has been fighting with for the last few years against ISIS, say that they were part of the intelligence. And so just like what is happening in northwest Syria. There are a lot of, a lot of groups who are part of this. The Kurds definitely provided intelligence. The president downplayed that. Instead, the president up-played, for lack of a better word, Russia, Turkey and even the Syrian regime, all of whom control some of the airspace that these U.S. troops flew over. And so it was certainly U.S. and Kurdish intelligence, but a lot of countries needed to be informed about this operation before it started.

  • Hari Sreeenivasan:

    You know, a lot of us remember very vividly when President Obama addressed the nation after the killing of Osama bin Laden. This was about as opposite as you could be. Even the language in the tone that the president was using today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yeah. The fact that the president gave so many details, definitely not what President Obama or any predecessor have, has done. Also, the language. We just heard it in your piece. The president calling al-Baghdadi a dog. That kind of language will rankle many ISIS fighters, which, of course, is what the president is doing. But I talked to ISIS analysts this morning. And what they are saying is that this could taunt ISIS fighters and perhaps increase their desire for some kind of revenge attack.

  • Hari Sreeenivasan:

    All right. Put this in the context of this conversation we've all been having now on whether or not or how U.S. troops should be involved in this area, whether they're going to be withdrawing or not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yeah, the president was offered the opportunity basically to say, hey, this is another reason that we shouldn't be in Syria. And he said, no. What is going to happen is that U.S. troops are going to remain to protect oilfields. Now, those oil fields are in the northeast part of the country, away from the Turkish border that we've been talking about recently in terms of the safe zone, these oil fields will be protected by Syrian Kurds and by U.S. forces. The problem, according to military commanders with that plan, is that they are, the U.S. forces will be a stationary target. And so that's why they're thinking about sending in things like tanks, really making the U.S. presence more robust. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers, perhaps even up to a thousand, according to some officials. And that's exactly what President Trump ordered to withdraw. The other thing that U.S. forces or U.S. officials want to point out is that those U.S. troops will be able to keep fighting ISIS. And the Pentagon itself says that ISIS is not defeated. They say about 18,000 fighters between Iraq and Syria remain, creating sleeper cells that are largely autonomous, Hari. And what that means is that at least in the short term, Baghdadi's death will probably not mean anything on the ground for tactics of an ISIS group and ISIS groups. They're really trying to become an insurgency, especially in Iraq, but also in Syria once again.

  • Hari Sreeenivasan:

    PBS NewsHour's Nick Schifrin, our foreign affairs and defense correspondent. Thanks so much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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