Return to Transcripts main page


ISIS Leader Believed to Have Been Killed in U.S. Raid. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired October 27, 2019 - 12:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): I'm Paula Newton at the CNN Center in Atlanta where we are following major breaking news this hour.

The international manhunt for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi just took a very dramatic turn. CNN can now confirm that Special Forces have launched an operation targeting al-Baghdadi after receiving crucial CIA intelligence on his possible location in northwest Syria.

Now President Trump is expected to make a major announcement on Sunday morning at 9:00 am Eastern; an administration official says the announcement is foreign policy related. That is all we know right now. Al-Baghdadi has been in hiding for the past five years, ever since he stood in the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq in 2014 and proclaimed the ISIS caliphate. CNN Pentagon reporter Ryan Browne has the latest from Washington.

So I say, Ryan, that these are the kind of tips the Special Forces look for.

What more do you know what the operation is underway?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very few details of the operation have become known at this time. Of course, that is not atypical in such a high risk, high value target operation such as this.

It is interesting that it took place in northwest Syria, where actually the U.S. military does not have much of a presence. Of course, there has been a large debate in Washington recently about the military presence in Syria. But that is mostly in the country's east.

On the, northwest there actually very little U.S. military presence on the ground and so the ability to find intelligence on Baghdadi, given the variety of the, groups, many extremist groups that have kind of take it refuge in northwest Syria, you can imagine it was extremely difficult operation to look at his location and then launch a grand military operation to attempt to apprehend him.

Now, of course, these operations are launched and often verification of the identity of the target takes some time. We believe that process is still ongoing.

But given the White House is making this major announcement tomorrow, morning it is safe to say they are fairly confident that in their targeting procedures that they knew they were going after when this elite Special Operations missions was launched.

NEWTON: Yes and we can certainly see, obviously, that it would be familiar in terms of the kind of covert operations that they have ongoing in Syria and, Ryan, we will look no further than a tweet from the president at 9:00 pm this evening, saying that is something very big has just happened, exclamation mark.

We have no further details from him right now. Ryan, I know you will continue to keep us up to date with this. Please come back to us if you have any more information as this operation is ongoing in northwest Syria.

I now want to bring in Bob Baer, who, of course, has been following the story with us.

Bob, in terms of the way you have been analyzing this for us, really over the last few years since al-Baghdadi took the pulpit there in Mosul and declared his caliphate, how significant would this be if they believe that at least know his location inside Syria?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, for the Trump administration, this would be a great breakthrough after the humiliation of leaving Syria the way he did and returning.

This foreign policy has been a disaster. But if we can actually grab or kill Baghdadi, it would be an enormous success for Donald Trump. You know, the fact that he could have been or is in northwest Syria is predictable. The area around Idlib is still controlled by Islamic groups who sympathize with him, if not Islamic State groups.

So this story is sounding plausible. But the president, if he's going to go live tomorrow morning at 9:00, they are pretty sure they have the guy or know where he is.

NEWTON: That they know where he is, of course, significant. And, Bob, if you can talk to us a little bit about that. I mean, how many times we've been down this road before where there has been intelligence that they thought that perhaps they knew where he was, that he might have been injured, in ill health and yet we had a message, right?

Just a few weeks ago, from al-Baghdadi, encouraging the ISIS caliphate to continue and for those ISIS fighters to continue without him.

BAER: Well, what Baghdadi knew for certain is that he had to stay off telephones and communications, he had to get away. It's like Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, It is simply go underground, to stay away from the email, telephone calls and the rest of it.

[00:05:00] BAER: And it is significant, especially now because so many Islamic State prisoners have escaped, possibly up to 800. They're talking about reforming. They have their leader taken out of whatever way at this time would be demoralizing, obviously for the Islamic State. You know, this would be a very crucial and important operation in that part of the world.

NEWTON: And in terms of what is going on in that part of the world right, now as you just mentioned, there is a lot of confusion over foreign policy there. Certainly President Trump will have been briefed on a lot of these covert operations over the last few years to try to find al-Baghdadi and bring him to justice.

In terms of what is going on the ground now in Syria, how much more complicated does that make an operation like this?

BAER: Very, because you will have to cross a lot of lines. Clearly the SEALs or Delta Force could do this covert operation, get into western Syria. There is no anti-aircraft to speak of. They can do it stealthily and get in.

You know, what I think what we are seeing is pretty much the defeat of Islamic groups and it is a matter of time before Syria is carved up between Turkey, Russia and Iran and these groups were very violent and they have obviously failed to set up a caliphate or any other form of government. It is the, end pretty, close to the Syrian resistance.

NEWTON: To the Syrian resistance but the savagery that we saw ISIS unleash, really unprecedented in modern times in terms of the way they also use social media propaganda to really terrorize people everywhere.

You know, Bob, you, know CNN has brought us the stories. We have had reporters there in the field with his ISIS prisoners and in many cases their families also being absolutely defiant.

Is it naive to think that capturing one leader, that finding one leader and bring perhaps leadership to an, end but that would really bring an end to this kind of an ISIS group?

BAER: No, these groups do not need a spiritual leader. They are not like Shia Muslims that do. These groups can pick up new leaders all the time. Baghdadi replaces Zarqawi who had no clerical standing. It does not really matter.

And we saw the Islamic State continue to fight on after he was on the. Run so I completely agree with you that the very radicalized Salafi Islam will not go away as long as there's political turmoil in the Middle East which, in our lifetime, I cannot ever see that going away.

So some form of group is going to keep popping up; I don't think it is ever going to get much bigger but it is going to be very dangerous and right, now it is a big threat to Europe with these prisoners getting out.

NEWTON: And as you're speaking, Bob, we are seeing pictures of Baghdadi from that moment there in 2014. Chilling to think what happened in the years after him speaking there on that pulpit. Bob, I know you're go to stay with us. Thanks so much for your expertise. We will come back to you very soon.

In the meantime, though, I want to go to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. He joins us now from northern Iraq.

And Nick, as we have been saying, this is an operation in northwest Syria. A special operation , the president clearly excited about what the outcome may, be saying something very big is happening.

But give us an indication of how difficult it has been to really track this man down, because we've had a lot of false alarms before.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, look, the most important part of what you have just said, strategically here is northwestern Syria. Of course, that is not a part of Syria where the United States has a lot of access.

Now if you're trying to think of a place where, for, example you might want to hide yourself were you al-Baghdadi, then Idlib province is a well-known area of northwestern Syria where there are substantial numbers of Al Qaeda affiliated jihadists. Not knowing necessarily to be an ISIS stronghold, far from it in, fact the ISIS who have grown up there is considered a substantial threat to many U.S. intelligence officials I've been speaking to over the years.

But the complexity of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been that since that mosque appearance publicly, there's only been one other videotaped appearance of him and that was April.

Now if you were, for example, launching a raid into northwestern Syria, you'll be going into, frankly, the sort of snakes pit, if you, like of Al Qaeda, an area where there are millions of civilians under bombardment by a Russian air, force by the Syrian regime. This is the new kind of flashpoint in the next phase of Syria's war.

We have seen this mess play out between the Turkish forces and Syrian Kurdish forces, but if it's northwestern Syria you are talking about.


WALSH: And I'm speculating here as the location of this raid, than if I were able back around Baghdadi, and will be looking to hide myself amongst sympathetic jihadis, possibly in an area like that.

That speculation, of course, is exactly what the U.S. commander in chief president Donald Trump's speech later on today going to be about but let me tell you, there is no accident we're seeing this kind of pageantry laid out at this eight-hour drumbeat, possibly, longer you will hear until that final announcement.

It is almost inevitable what it will end up being.

The question, is how is this raid necessarily launched and what was his actual outcome? It would've been extraordinarily difficult with United States to insert themselves into Idlib. They would probably have deconflict with their Turkish ally across the border who is a fractious ally, to see the least, who frankly have been ignoring American entreaties for the past weeks or so, to not attack the Syrian Kurds.

So with that happening as well, you have the possibility that the Russians may well have had activity in the airspace around an area like, that and, of course, the Syrian regime who think all of Syria should be under their control and may have wondered quite what was happening in those hours as well.

So entirely unclear the exact location of whatever this was, occurred but the important part to remember is exactly the kind of pageantry we have seen like this. We have not in a moment on this point since ISIS first kind of began to pull itself together, we watched that happen ourselves in southern Turkey in late 2013.

There has been no moments since Baghdadi came to the fore we have had this level of suggestion that he may be deceased. As you heard from Bob there, though, the death of al-Baghdadi, this is a man who began fighting the U.S. military presence in Iraq, who was held in a U.S. facility there, radicalized over time and then essentially became the figurehead of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which was formerly the Islamic State of Iraq.

They had this extraordinary YouTube video that they released, which showed their militants breaking down the border between Iraq and Syria, essentially saying, this is our caliphate, is the area between Iraq and Syria which we now control.

Back then, it was a tiny amount of land. But it moved very fast over time with Baghdadi's leadership. Because the nature of how that organization worked, nobody knows exactly what shots he was calling. Nobody knows how integral he was to the day-to-day procedure.

The insurgency learned a lot while it was in Iraq about how the Americans can pick out leaders during night raids, one by, one from middle level to senior, level making it hard to continue a chain of command.

I think most of the estimates were that we were likely to see the next phase of that particular insurgency create itself so that, if one leader was taken, out it would continue to function and we have seen that happen over the years as U.S. drone strikes have repeatedly taken out ISIS leaders.

Now if it is the case that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been caught in this, raid we know nothing about that apart from the fact that Donald Trump is due to make a speech at some point in the next 10 hours. He has tweeted that something very big has happened.

Now obviously, in the U.S. commander in chief's mind, a lot of things are very big, in his, mind. So we don't know what that means but certainly the pageantry I think we are seeing various U.S. officials around this suggests something substantial is about to be announced. The point, is whether Baghdadi's death would in fact mean ISIS takes a

major shortfall. Symbolically, yes, because they've always, like with Al Qaeda beforehand, felt the kind of catch me if you can nature of their leader gave them some sense of strength.

Well, it did not work with Osama bin Laden and after his death, well, Al Qaeda went quiet and have, to some extent, benefited from that silence and reconstituted themselves. The symbolic blow of bin Laden being killed in that raid. We went to the house ourselves, he was hiding in plain sight under Pakistani military.

There very clearly somebody who was quite happy to live out the rest of his days in absolute anonymity and in that massive villa there. He was actually found after years of painstaking work by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, in a very daring raid, showed frankly the primacy of American military power and intelligence over that small but persistent terrorist organization.

Baghdadi similarly I think was trying to create a similar mystique about himself, to be the man no one could find. Now back in May of 2018, we reported that the Americans believed he had been badly injured in an airstrike near Raqqah and that would take him out of his functional capabilities for about five months or so.

It was unclear who carried that particular strike out but then he did go quiet for a period of time until we saw that video emerge in April of this year, where we saw Baghdadi sat cross-legged, looking reasonably healthy.


WALSH: His ISIS fighters at that time, a lot of them stuck in Baghouz, dealing with the last major chapter of ISIS, under intense, fire not having enough food. There he was, quite, rotund, quite jovial and seeming to dispense orders about the various regions of the Islamic caliphate, asking how they were, going, suggesting a global organization. Now the important part about Baghdadi is his symbolism in that it did not seem like bin Laden, he was a man sat there with the huge control deck -- I say was, forgive, me we do not know if that is the, case -- he is a man sat there with a control deck, touching the various levers of power and working out where a raid or an operation would next occur.

He was a man of symbolism and in, fact the order from his former spokesperson media boss to all of the various cells that wanted to see themselves attached to this ISIS brand was to go forward and do what you can and then subsequently, ISIS would claim responsibility for it, rather than being involved in the planning stage.

That made it very difficult to stop ISIS operations because what you frankly needed was somebody with mental health problems in a different part of Europe who would decide to hatch some extraordinary, outrageous and horrifying plot do it and then subsequently ISIS would say we were involved in that.

That made Baghdadi's symbolism significantly more potent because they were about the, ideology they were about the videos and they were about the idea that you could essentially inspire people globally to do these sort of things -- Paula.

NEWTON: And that's the reason the media that were looking at right now from April was all the more depressing for those who were trying to chase him and trying to hunt him down for all of those months because they thought that perhaps he had been in some way, shape or form at least seriously injured.

Nick, in terms of him and his symbolic nature, I know what you are saying there. This was just so savage, what they did. It was unbelievable scenes and used a very highly organized social media arm, a media arm to really spread their terror, like a virus, that we have not seen.

Is there any sense though that ISIS can reconstitute itself at least in that way, even if the issue of the caliphate is now perhaps gone?

I've been very struck by the reporting that you and others at CNN have brought us about the defiance, the very defiance of those ISIS fighters, even if they are in prison right now and, of course, there are reports that where you are in Iraq, that ISIS continues to try to reconstitute itself for.

WALSH: Look, there's lots of different ways of interpreting. That the propaganda machine was extremely efficient and. Brutal it had no holds barred in terms of what it was willing to show people about what ISIS would do to people who considered to be its enemies. And that was an absolute deliberate choice. That was perhaps, from what we understand from speaking to the Beetles, the British jihadists who are apparently now in U.S. custody, not everybody necessarily agreed about the level of brutality which ISIS were willing to show.

But that was part of the idea, that was part of the message and there were some who say that what they were effectively doing was, after years of brutality amid the Syrian civil war inflicted upon Sunnis in the north and other parts of Syria, they were coming forward and saying, we are capable of similar military brutality.

There are others who say, well, part of the strategy was to create extraordinary distance between those who were followers of ISIS and the rest of the world. One of the broad failings of all of this is that they've managed to create themselves as so much of the other, people who we can't simply seem to understand, how people would get behind such a radical, brutal ideology, that we couldn't work out what their actual human grievances were.

A lot of ISIS stems from the discontent of Sunnis in parts of Iraq and Syria who have been bombed, disenfranchised, who feel totally marginalized and then found themselves actually welcoming a group like ISIS to provide some sort of stability or at least rules, at least some sense of military protection.

None of this excuses what they. Did but the broad failing possible, you might, argue even, now if we are in a conversation where we wonder whether Baghdadi might be dead, we are trying to work out exactly what ISIS managed to pull off and the big failing, , certainly of the West has been to try to work out where initially they came from.

And part of the effectiveness of ISIS in preventing that conversation was to make themselves quite so horrifying, make themselves quite so disgusting to the uninformed viewer.

NEWTON: Nick, pause that thought for just a second because we do have more news here in to CNN. Again, I want to remind everyone that we are covering a U.S. military Special Operations force that went in, apparently, to northwestern Syria to hunt down the man you see there, at the ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi. CNN Pentagon reporter Ryan Browne has more now from Washington.

What more are you learning, Ryan?

BROWNE: We are hearing from two sources now that Baghdadi was believed killed in this U.S. Special Operations raid in northwest Syria. They are still conducting the necessary verification DNA testing, that sort of procedure to confirm that it was in fact he who was killed.


BROWNE: But we are told that the current assessment from the U.S. military is that he was, in fact, killed in this operation. The daring raid into northwest Syria, an area the U.S. military rarely operated in and at least one official is telling us that it appears that Baghdadi may have detonated some kind of explosive, possibly a suicide vest to avoid being captured.

And that, of course, if that is true, it would complicate the process of identifying him as the U.S. military gathers evidence at the site of this location. Again, it's hard to downplay how complicated such a raid would be, unlike in Eastern Syria, where the U.S. military has operated regularly.

Northwest Syria has been an area that the U.S. does not typically operated in save for a few drone strikes in the past. You have Russians often operating there, you have the regime operating there, you have various extremist groups, various rebel groups operating there.

So to insert a U.S. Special Operations team into that area to conduct such a high profile raid, they must have had high confidence that Baghdadi was, in fact, there and that it was worth the risk, that the target was worth the risk of launching such an operation.

NEWTON: Yes, and Ryan, as you are speaking, obviously many of us thinking back to Barack Obama and the moment in the Situation Room where they had to make a decision on whether or not that was Osama bin Laden, again that was Pakistan and very crucial that they did not tip off anyone in Pakistan as to what was going on.

Ryan, I'm going to let you go and news gather some, more I'm sure you will have more information, for us.

We are going to turn back now to Nick Paton Walsh who is in northern Iraq.

Nick, I'm going to go through some of the nuts and bolts with you in a minute. Please put it into context for us. There is now a possibility at least two U.S. sources telling CNN that al-Baghdadi could have been killed in this raid.

WALSH: Obviously an extraordinary moment for U.S. foreign policy. For those many hundreds of, thousands of individuals whose lives have been ended, families ruined, people who have lived through extraordinary trauma, experiencing, often being made to watch brutality which we have not really seen in modern times possibly since the Second World War.

And in fact the man who was the ideological figurehead of that, if you'd like to, say spiritual if you can call it, the leader of that movement, now is believed to have been killed, is a seismic moment.

Certainly, for anybody who has watched this terror group grow and the damage it caused to the notion of a moderate way of life here in the Middle East and the damage it caused European capitals for those who have been targeted by a butcher's knife for a bomb anywhere between Paris to Moscow to the United States, this is an extraordinary, weighty moment to see that the man who was the figurehead of a movement that was frankly so much an online virus of symbolism, the fact that the man who first came up with this sort of twisted creed may no longer be on the face of the Earth alive is a massively important moment for the hunt.

It shows, I think that when it comes to the United States trying to prosecute what it considers justice, to seek the people who caused horrors like that, that they have now twice been ultimately successful.

Osama bin Laden behind the 9/11 attacks, dead, killed after painstaking years of work, and a daring Special Forces raid. And now yet again it seems that the CIA have assisted in locating this man and U.S. Special Forces are believed to have killed him at this point, not definitive as you heard my colleague Ryan Browne say.

But still the increasing conclusion here is that he is dead and if that is the case, that is a body blow, frankly for the radical notion of jihad against the West globally but specifically against ISIS -- Paula

NEWTON: Absolutely and also a huge foreign policy win for president Donald Trump, who basically was giving us a little snapshot of what may be to come, tweeting just a few hours ago, something very big has just happened.

Nick, I know you will stand by for me.

Again repeating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, now we have two U.S. Sources telling us they do believe that he may have been killed in a special U.S. Operations force in northwest Syria. Stay with, us we will be right back with some more on the breaking news.





NEWTON: And welcome back to CNN Center in Atlanta where we continue to follow breaking news on the manhunt for ISIS leader Abu Baker al- Baghdadi. Now sources tell CNN that al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. military raid in northwest Syria.

A U.S. official say president Donald Trump is expected to make an announcement related to foreign policy in the coming hours. That is all they have told us. Al-Baghdadi has been in hiding. We will remind, you since 2014 when he stood right there.

The video you are looking at, stood in that Great Mosque in Mosul and proclaimed an ISIS caliphate with great consequences, not just in Syria and Iraq but around the world.

We will bring you so much more on this breaking news story at CNN. Stay with us, the U.S. raid targeting the leader of ISIS. We will bring it all to you in a few moments.





NEWTON: If you are just joining us we have breaking news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. raid in northwest Syria. Now a U.S. Defense official tells CNN that al-Baghdadi apparently detonated a suicide vast just as U.S. Special Forces closed in.

Final confirmation is pending, of course, that all-important DNA analysis and, of course, other positive identifiers. Al-Baghdadi has been in hiding for five years, I would remind you, and we are being told that locating him, of course, this time as well was based on CIA intelligence.

President Trump is expected to make a major announcement on Sunday morning at 9:00 am Eastern, I will repeat, he did tweet the, president a few hours ago, saying something very big has just happened.

I want to remind you now though about al-Baghdadi, the leader, of course, of that terrorist group ISIS. It is believed that he was born in Iraq in 1971, he was a Sunni Muslim from a very religious family. A biography posted on the jihadist websites as he earned a doctorate in Islamic studies in Baghdad.

It's believed he joined the Iraqi insurgency after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He was later captured and spent four years in a U.S.-run prison camp in southern Iraq until his release in 2009.

Within a year he became leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq but eventually broke away to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The U.S. is now offering a 25 million dollar reward for al-Baghdadi's capture.

What we do know, of course, that this raid was based on CIA intelligence in an area where normally the United States would not even have boots on the ground and that is highly significant.

Col. Cedric Leighton is a former deputy director of the NSA and is a CNN military analyst who joins us now live from Washington.

And I want to talk to about that, we got northwest Syria here, an area where it's conceivable that, without tipping off the Russians or Turkish forces or the Syrian forces, that they would have had to get air clearance, right?

Or do you believe that this was more about the way the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan, where you really try and tell no one?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: You know, Paula, it could be both. There is, perhaps one of the parties involved like Turkey may have known something about this , the Russians may have known something about it because it is in the interests actually of both countries that Baghdadi be eliminated from the scene.

So it is conceivable that they did it that way but what I think is more likely until we get more information, my hunch is that this was done without telling either country but we will see if that turns out to be correct.

Either way, with flight clearances, it becomes a huge issue; you have to make sure that every single piece of airspace, if you are going to be transversing (sic), actually is available to you and that there is no conflict with another side and that's pretty tough to do in an environment like Syria, especially that part of Syria, which is right near the Turkish border.

NEWTON: Especially when you, have of course, the Russian air force right now dictating a lot of what happened in that airspace.


NEWTON: And knowing the tension there, it's not unheard of that the United States and Russia would cooperate on something like that but, of course, extremely complicated.

You know, dramatic details here that we are getting from our Ryan Browne at the Pentagon, saying that he had a suicide vest; I suppose you would have to assume that he would know that the Americans were looking for him wherever he may be and would have had this kind of a plan. But really dramatic details, there.

LEIGHTON: Absolutely, Paula. And on the suicide vest, there were intelligence reports that came out in the public domain a few years ago that al-Baghdadi actually slept with a suicide vest on his person. So this is not a surprise, based on those reports, that this actually was how he lived.

In essence, carrying a suicide vest with him at all times. And if this story is, true if this part of the reporting turns out to be correct, then it seems to be a true to form kind of situation, where al-Baghdadi, the reports on him were accurate and he used this suicide vest in this last instance to avoid capture.

NEWTON: Yes, and we want to be clear here that U.S. authorities are telling us they believe that he has been killed but cannot know for sure until they get, of course, that DNA confirmation.

Cedric, you know what we are going back to here, right?

It's that raid on Osama bin Laden and the collective relief around the globe that Osama bin Laden had been killed. For Donald Trump, this would be quite a foreign policy moment, an epic one, quite frankly, if this turns out to be true.

LEIGHTON: Oh, yes, absolutely. And just like at the time, President Obama did the Osama bin Laden raid, President Obama did reap lot of benefits from that in a political sense and I think it probably helped assure his reelection.

The other thing that Donald Trump has to look forward to is certainly a bounce in that sense in terms of his foreign policy credentials or chops in this case.

Of course the people that really did the work are the intelligence agencies and the military raiders that performed this mission, so it was good on him if this turns out to be correct, that he directed this raid and that it was successful. It certainly beats any type of unsuccessful situation which we have had in the past, such as the raid to try to free the Iran hostages way back in 1980.

And those are the kinds of things that can make or break a U.S. president, quite frankly. And in Donald Trump's case, it probably couldn't have come at a better time.

NEWTON: I was going to say, even had people like senator Lindsey Graham, saying that basically Trump's policy in Syria is now a shambles, given the fact that those U.S. troops on Donald Trump's order had moved out of Syria and allowed the Turkish forces and now Russia to move in there.

And yet this will allow him, what, Cedric?

As if they knew what they were doing all along in Syria and this will be a victory he can take to the ballot box?

LEIGHTON: Sure. In many cases, certainly the people that are in President Trump's corner are going to say he knew that this raid was going to take place, he had confidence that it would succeed and therefore this was part of a master plan in order to do these kinds of things.

My view on this is that it probably wasn't as neat and easy as that, although clearly the president had information on the raid and it helped to listen to the different people from the Special Operations community, who would brief him on this and he also looked at this and said, give it that green light to go ahead.

And he probably thought if the raid was successful, I can open up this area to Turkey and it won't matter anymore, so that may have been part of his thinking, whether matters or not I think that's something for debate.

But it's one of those nuances of military and national security policy that may very well get lost in the battle in terms of the election campaign.

NEWTON: Yes, but it is an important nuance and the point that he would've been privy to briefings on what was going on in the ground in northwest Syria and, of course, will be able to explain that on a later date, if he chooses to.

As I said, he did tweet saying something very big has just happened and that will be what we hear from him early in the morning.

Cedric Leighton, thanks so much, we appreciate your time this evening especially giving us that context.

I now want to go back to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, who joins us live from Northern Iraq.

And Nick, we were just talking about the fact that, of course, northwest Syria, not a place that you would expect necessarily that is that easy for the United States to operate.


NEWTON: But I'd like you to weigh in here in terms of the posture of both the Turkish government and, of course, the Russian military, about if they had known about something like this, if they would give it their blessing, so to speak, knowing that Special Forces are going up there and they needed to clear the airspace there that they would've thought, OK, this is in everyone's interest, we will put disagreements aside and we will have coordinated with them.

WALSH: Listen, I mean, I'm sure we will hear in the hours ahead that there was coordination to some degree or maybe not. I do recall after bin Laden, there was speculation the Pakistanis were tipped off but they weren't.

Something like this, in my speculative opinion, is a highly sensitive piece of information, you will not give it to anybody because frankly your competitors in the region don't want to give you the win, they might.

You might argue prefer to see Baghdadi still alive and the United States at this point, one frankly they have been in a day or as terms of foreign policy goals in the region over the last two weeks. And this is an extraordinary win for the United States military. So my personal hunch will be they will certainly not tell the

Russians, you would probably not tell your NATO ally, Turkey, because of how bad the relationship with Turkey is at that point and also that U.S. Special Forces, frankly, are practiced at going into extraordinary hostile environments, as low as they can and making that kind of move.

So I think this occurred without the approval.

NEWTON: We know that they can operate unilaterally when they want to pretty much any sphere they want to, the point is in terms of any backlash that there would be when people find out exactly where they were and what they were doing.

It is as you said kind of an unorthodox place for them to be operating in, given what's happened recently.

WALSH: It's unorthodox, absolutely, it's extraordinary how dangerous this place is. This is a place where we haven't really seen U.S. boots on the ground ever, there's a possibility they may have had some raids in 2015 or so.

But this is a place that is reserved for drone strikes only. So the mere fact that if this was a ground raid. And it sounds like it given the level of detail your hearing my colleagues in Washington that they did have boots on the ground to be able to know this much that this is one of the most daring things they have done, probably comparable to that raid into Pakistan that killed bin Laden.

This is the sort of snake pit of Al Qaeda, the absolute lair. It's a complex territory because there are lots of civilians there but a lot of the Islamist fighters there have Al Qaeda links, are strongly jihadist in their perception, quite radicalized.

And this has been the place where frankly many intelligence officials have been reticent to talk about because they see this threat is so substantial and they didn't quite know what to do about it.

Idlib is an extraordinary riddle, you can't really launch a military operation without killing possibly thousands of innocent civilians. But you also know that within their midst are Al Qaeda affiliates.

And it seems possibly, possibly because we say northwestern Syria and I speculate Idlib because that is the most likely place where you would find sympathetic places to hide if you are someone like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But remember, bin Laden hid in Abbottabad, right under the noses of the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, the officers training college. So remember that he could've been anywhere in northwestern Syria, hiding out in a farmhouse without a phone signal.

But it would appear more likely that he would choose that kind of place to feel more secure. And that brings us to the question of the nature of this raid and I think, frankly, given the sensitivity of the target, the sensitivity of the area, highly unlikely Americans would broadcast their intentions even to a NATO ally like Turkey.

You have to bear in mind, Paula, we have seen for U.S. soldiers who have been working in the fight against ISIS over the past years, they have been hiding out in kind of shacks, in ditches, frankly, for a long period of time in this dirty, messy fight alongside the Syrian Kurds, to kick back the most dangerous militant group we have seen in decades.

They've had a very tough few weeks. They have seen their positions on the orders of their commander in chief collapse inside of Syria, they have had to withdraw at a hasty rate because their commander in chief has broadcast their intentions before they've managed to execute it.

They have seen themselves reconstitute their mission in a significantly worse tactical place than they could imagine. But while all that has been going on, while that enormous change in geopolitics has been going on, it seems with the other hand they have also been killing possibly the world's most wanted man.

And that's an extraordinary, I think, symbolic statement by the U.S. military here in terms of what they've been capable of doing while this other stuff has been going down. And of course, to a kind of irony here, that the man who has made their job so much harder here, president Donald Trump, is also the one who will be announcing in the hours ahead this substantial symbolic victory for the United States.

It's not the end of the fight against ISIS. In, fact he claimed he had done that awhile back, Donald Trump, that is. But it is certainly a massive blow for them as an ideology, Paula.

NEWTON: Yes, absolutely. It's important context you are giving us there and I appreciate that insight.

I also want to talk to you about these reports that we are getting that he would have been wearing a suicide vest.


NEWTON: I mean, as far as you know, Nick, he would have been knowing obviously that at any point in time U.S. Special Forces might be coming for him and would have taken his own precautions, whatever he thought he could do in terms of either escaping or killing himself with a suicide vest.

Obviously those kinds of scenarios play up all the time, both not just for ISIS and those protecting him but also for U.S. Special Operations forces as well.

WALSH: Yes I, mean, personally I think it would be highly unlikely if 24/7, Baghdadi was walking around wearing a suicide vest, it's just too dangerous, frankly. You would not be able to go but your daily life. Imagine trying to cook dinner in that kind of apparel.

But I'm sure there would be explosive devices nearby him, ways he could have found to end his own life if he preferred that over capture. Bear in mind obviously you might say his humiliating parade for him in front of cameras as a prisoner, possibly if that were to occur or eventual trial would've been a massive complication for the United States juridically but also for him in terms of being humiliated in that way.

We saw bin Laden was shot dead by Special Forces when they broke into the top floor of that villa. But it may be, if you are hearing correctly, if reports turn out to be correct, that Baghdadi chose to remove that whole part of the equation.

Obviously in a raid of this nature, you have substantial warning as Special Forces begin to move in, that they are likely coming for you and perhaps it may have been his desire to show a final message, possibly more honorable in the twisted creed of ISIS to take your own life in the face of the enemy then necessarily find yourself captured.

We have seen ourselves, our camera man when we are watching this, when he filmed an ISIS fighter coming out of a ditch, opening fire on the Kurdish men in front of him, finding himself close to capture and then blowing himself up on camera.

You have to understand that kind of ideology that compels individuals like this to take their own lives in a moment like that. And I'm sure Baghdadi's final statement, if you will, if this is indeed what it was that occurred, would have been done entirely purposefully to send a continuing message.

NEWTON: Absolutely, you only have to be reminded of just the chilling savagery that we saw again and again and again in photos and videos over those years to understand exactly what they were all about.

Nick Paton Walsh there in Iraq I know you will stand by for us.

In the meantime we continue to cover this breaking story here on CNN of that U.S. raid targeting the leader of ISIS, stay with us.





NEWTON: Welcome back. We want you bring it right up to speed on the momentous developments in the hunt for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi. Sources tell CNN that al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. military raid in northwest Syria.

Now a Defense official said it appears that al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest during the operation. The U.S. official says president Donald Trump is expected to make an announcement related to foreign policy in the coming hours. That's all we know.

But of course, the president did tweet saying that something very big had happened a few hours ago. Now al-Baghdadi has been in hiding since 2014 when he stood, you are looking at him right there, at the great mosque in Mosul, Iraq, and proclaimed an ISIS caliphate.

We want to bring in CNN senior international correspondent Sam Kiley joining us now from that Turkish Syrian border.

Important that you bring us the context from there and what's going on there in the last couple of weeks, Sam, in terms of U.S. foreign policy and how so much has changed there on the ground.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A radical change over the last couple of weeks with the Turkish incursion backing militia groups. A lot of the elements of those militia groups associated with Al Qaeda and other jihadi elements to what the Turks want to do is try to establish what they call a safe zone, going some 32 kilometers inside Syrian territory, to create this buffer zone that is demilitarized in terms of Kurdish forces being completely driven out.

Now why does this relate or how does this relate to the reported killing of al-Baghdadi?

Well, it's in that safe zone that we believe Baghdadi was attacked by U.S. Special Forces on the ground and from the air, some five kilometers or so inside the territory that is supposedly now part of a safe zone.

So the withdrawal of U.S. forces that was part of this Turkish incursion would have somewhat undermined the ability, perhaps of the United States, to prosecute such an operation since they would have had troops on the ground, that they have had since withdrawn.

But this does nevertheless appear to have gone ahead and had some success if the reports are correct that Baghdadi is dead, possibly detonating himself using a suicide fast in a rather typical ISIS fashion.

But nonetheless, the wider strategic issues here still remain, with continuing fighting going on between the Turkish backed militias and the Syrian Democratic Forces, who worked so hard alongside the United States and other U.S. allies to try to get rid of the so-called Islamic State from this entire region.

NEWTON: Yes. And Sam, you make a good point and yet we know the capability of those U.S. Special Forces to be covert and obviously to function unilaterally, even from the troops, the other troops there that are on the ground.

I want to remind everyone that it was really about a month ago in September that they had an audio message that they could not confirm was al-Baghdadi but he was basically targeting that area that had those prisoners, those ISIS prisoners and their families.

And it could not be confirmed but it seems that it was al-Baghdadi that was encouraging sympathizers of ISIS to storm those prisons.

At this point in time that was highly significant, wasn't it? KILEY: It was highly significant in the sense, even more significant now because those prisons are predominantly still in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces. It's their troops that have been guarding them. And a lot of those troops have been pulled off that task in order to battle against the Turkish backed incursion into their territory.

Now there have been some smaller prisons in which they were accused by the Turks, of letting some ISIS prisoners out but I think with that statement coming from Baghdadi a couple of months ago, indicated this was a degree of desperation, they desperately needed to get people out of these prisons, not just in Syria but there's a large number also alleged to have been members of ISIS imprisoned in Iraq.

He also exhorted his followers around the world to carry out these lone wolf, these unilateral attacks, the sort of which we have seen over the years, particularly in Europe, where people have been self generated.


KILEY: One calls to mind for example the London bridge attacks which were followers of the so-called Islamic State but not people trained here. But the real hardcore elements remain a lot of them alive in these camps, some 6,000 to 8,000 men, most of them assumed to be highly trained potential terrorists still being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

And it's the future of those sorts of people that are so problematic, not just locally but internationally. Europeans extremely uncomfortable, indeed, about even whether or not to repatriate them, whether they should be prosecuted, those who actually come from their countries.

The British for example have stripped the nationality of a large number of jihadi volunteers that are in these prisons. So a highly volatile, still potential source of terrorist activity still exists in northern Syria.

But if al-Baghdadi has been killed it is at the very least a highly important symbolic blow but it's also an intellectual blow to the intellectual lifeblood. And that surprising to consider that this ultraviolent terrorist organization had an intellectual tradition.

But it absolutely did, not just from a religious perspective, which al-Baghdadi put himself at the top of, that declaring himself caliph, a highly controversial thing to do in the Islamic tradition, but simultaneously people around him took a meticulous approach to the plotting and management of savagery.

They even have a doctrine written by an unknown hitherto, people don't know who wrote it but a nom de guerre, that absolutely outlines the efficacy, the deliberate precision use of that ultraviolent activities we have seen in the past and could still face in the future.

NEWTON: Yes, and spread by a media arm that was absolutely chilling and savage in the things that they chose to portray and the things that they proclaimed they were proud of.

Our Sam Kiley there on the Syrian-Turkish border, appreciate your context there.

We will continue here at CNN to follow the breaking news, a reminder that sources are now telling CNN that al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is believed to have been killed in a U.S. military raid in northwest Syria. They are awaiting though DNA confirmation. We want you to stay right here with CNN as we continue to bring you that breaking news.