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ISIS Leader Believed To Have Been Killed In U.S. Raid. Aired 3- 4a ET

Aired October 27, 2019 - 03:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): And welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world, we're live, coming from Atlanta, Georgia. I'm Natalie Allen.

Of course we continue to follow the breaking news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. military raid in northwest Syria.

What you're seeing is nighttime video taken by Syrian activists as a military operation got underway in northern Idlib province near the Turkish border. CNN cannot confirm that this was the actual raid targeting al-Baghdadi.

A U.S. Defense official tells CNN that al-Baghdadi apparently detonated a suicide vest as U.S. Special Forces closed in. DNA analysis will confirm whether it is in fact al-Baghdadi. The Islamic cleric has been in hiding for five years and locating him was based on CIA intelligence.

President Trump is expected to make a major announcement early Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern.

Earlier the president tweeted this, "Something very big has just happened." Nick Paton Walsh, Sam Kiley and Ben Wedeman will be helping to put this in perspective. Let's go to Nick.

Nick, first, talk about the significance of finally catching up and reportedly killing the leader of ISIS.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm actually in Irbil but this is a seismic moment for the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. This is the end of a chapter. It is not the end of a campaign.

But it does occur, probably the most difficult part of the U.S. campaign, one in which their commander in chief have got their forces to move back from certain areas. But it is doubtless the death of the author of an ideology which caused hundreds if not thousands of people to lose their lives. Innocents here, which bore the brunt of the ISIS horror campaign

around the world from the Philippines to Russia, through to Afghanistan, Africa. ISIS ideology spread fast, like a virus.

But now the author of that, a man who was so often in the shadows, so reticent to be publicly seen, because of the likelihood of what happened. It is an extraordinary victory for the United States security apparatus to have found this man during the onslaught against their main ally in the fight, the Syrian Kurds, and still take him out quite decisively.

The video purports to come from Idlib province, which opens up a whole set of different questions, about how the leader came to be sheltering in the heartland of ISIS' ideological rival, Al Qaeda, close to the Turkish border, a major NATO ally over whom there are questions about his proximity to jihadist groups. They say they fight ISIS harder than anyone else.

But still there have been accusations of forces unleashed to fight Syrian Kurds have been mostly extremists. But not to lose sight of today, despite all the questions around this, the death of this one man and the enormous damage it does for this sickening brand he exported globally.

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WALSH (voice-over): His face in public only once and even then in the presence of a small number. This is the moment at Friday prayers in a freshly conquered Mosul Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, creator of one of the most successful and inhuman terrorist networks in history chose to reveal himself.

Yet, before the infamy at this pulpit, he spent a decade rising quietly. A PhD student said to like football, these Pentagon records show, his capture by U.S. forces in 2004 near Fallujah, his hometown and held for years as a civilian internee at U.S. Camp Bucca. It was there, one expert who knew him, that he turned.

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HISHAM HASHIMI, ISIS EXPERT (through translator): Al-Baghdadi was not cruel or radical at the time, he just wanted to fight the Americans. However, he leaned toward sectarian violence in Bucca at a school, where he met foreigners and some Iraqis who filled his head with such ideas.

WALSH (voice-over): The officer in charge of the camp remembers the last words of the man they released.

KENNETH KING, FORMER COMMANDER, CAMP BUCCA: As he was leaving -- and he knew my unit was from Long Island, New York -- he looked over toward us and as he left, he said, "See you guys in New York."

Here we are a few years hence and I look at those words in a little bit of a different context right now. WALSH (voice-over): Then there is silence, a long stretch in the shadows of Iraq's savage civil war before hitting the Al Qaeda sanctions list in June 2011. Here as Abu Du'a, he led the Islamic State of Iraq, the Al Qaeda franchise in Iraq, whose previous leader, Zarqawi, the U.S. killed.

But as the U.S. left Iraq and the Arab Spring fell apart, the increasingly sectarian violence of Syria's civil war became a magnet for the bloodthirsty. Baghdadi, silently behind an ISIS brutality so extreme even Al Qaeda disowned it, leading the extremist groups to split in February of 2014 and months later, the group, to show its fighters breaking the borders of Syria and Iraq, declaring their caliphate.

With Baghdadi at its helm, claiming direct lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, the new caliph. This was Baghdadi's moment, the pinnacle of years of calculation and ISIS rose fast.

Then came the attack on and occupation of Mosul. The atrocities against the Yazidis in Mt. Sinjar, the beheadings of Western hostages, the besieging of Kobani, horrors marked by an obscene worship of violence.

WALSH: In all these, Baghdadi is invisible, yet doubtless the key decision-maker. But one of the more terrifying things about the ISIS he helped create is not its obsession with gruesomely videoing acts of murder but, instead, its harnessing of social media to create a global franchise amongst people it had often never met -- in Libya, Afghanistan, Paris, Brussels, atrocities committed by people who were attracted to ISIS' brand to commit atrocities and even die for it.

WALSH (voice-over): But in November 2014, rumors of an airstrike hitting him and then, within a week, a recording of his florid speech.

ABU BAKER AL-BAGHDADI, ISIS LEADER: (Speaking Arabic).

WALSH (voice-over): It became a pattern: no public appearances mixed with randomly released audio statements. U.S. officials told CNN that they believe he was injured in May 2017 and had to take five months away from his leadership duties as a result. Yet from that moment onwards, what was left of ISIS' so-called

caliphate collapsed in on itself. Mosul, freed from their grip in July, Raqqa that October.

ISIS reduced to a tiny slip of land on the Iraqi and Syrian border and an idea, infectious, hateful, still capable of inspiring barbaric insanity, yet now without its figurehead, a man willing to lead his followers to death but only from the shadows.

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WALSH: Now Natalie, we are hearing actually from an eyewitness, I should say a witness to some of the loud explosions that were in Idlib province in northwestern Syria just after midnight or so.

This witness lives in Sarmada, a village about five kilometers away from the town of Barisha. It is a town you'll hear a lot of because it seems a lot of social media activity is pointed toward that as the location of the raid.

The witness says after midnight he heard multiple helicopters and warplanes flying in the sky. He saw, he says, four helicopters but there could have been more. Importantly, he heard heavy machine guns, which would suggest some kind of ground force moving in on whatever it is that he subsequently witnessed.

And then there were large blasts for an hour and it was hard to tell precisely whether it was Barisha that was attacked. A lot of that adds some degree of authenticity to the video. Obviously, we cannot authenticate it entirely.

But if it is Barisha, that is very close to Turkey, a matter of kilometers. It even may be possible to see parts of Barisha from the Turkish border. But that is an extraordinary development as part of this.

It doesn't necessarily suggest Turkey was any more or less likely to have any knowledge of Baghdadi's whereabouts but, still, the geography here is key. It will complicate the explanation as to how the world's most wanted man came to be hiding in that area.

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WALSH: And we'll have to wait and see from the announcement from President Trump to see how and who knew he was there.

ALLEN: That announcement coming from the president in six hours now. Thank you, Nick, in Irbil for us. Now we want to go to Ben Wedeman.

He was hiding out, he lived in the shadows. That's how Osama bin Laden ended up hiding as well but he wasn't regarded like Osama bin Laden.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, in fact, Natalie, when we spent two months in Eastern Syria for that final battle against the so-called physical caliphate, we spoke with dozens of ISIS fighters who had been captured. We spoke with dozens of ISIS women, the wives of those fighters, their children.

And very few actually even mentioned the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their affiliation, their loyalty was to what they said was the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared just once in public in 2014 in that mosque in Mosul.

And after that he was largely absent. He was not for instance like Osama bin Laden whose fame goes back to the 1980s when he led the so- called Arab Mujahidin the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and who remained in the headlines to his death in 2011.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was largely unknown in Iraq itself, his native land. When he appeared in that mosque in 2014, in Mosul, many people had no idea who he was. And so there's sort of a large difference here in the sense that in the Western media, particularly the American media, we tend to focus on leaders.

But if you go back and look at the last 20 years or so, Saddam Hussein was captured and executed but that did not bring the insurgency in Iraq to an end. Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 but Al Qaeda is still very much in existence. Moammar Gadhafi was killed in 2011 but it's not as if Libya has returned to peace and harmony.

So therefore there's no reason to believe that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death is going to lead to the end of ISIS. Keep in mind that ISIS is present still in Iraq, in Syria, in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, in Libya, in West Africa, in Afghanistan, in the Philippines. It has carried out attacks in Western Europe.

It is an organic entity that will continue to exist and perhaps thrive in the absence of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because he was, in a sense, just the figurehead of an organism that is self-sustaining.

They obviously lost their fiscal physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq. But as an idea it exists. It is not just about to disappear because Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed by the Americans.

ALLEN: There's probably no doubt that places around the world are on a heightened alert because of what happened there in Syria.

Ben, thank you for your perspectives.

Let's go to our Sam Kiley. He is on the border, the Turkish-Syrian border.

Interesting that Nick was pointing out this region, how very close it is to Turkey.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, not only close to Turkey but very heavily dominated by Al Qaeda groups. Elements of what was known as the Al-Nusra Front remain there in some force. They really are the dominant force there, Natalie.

It's also incredibly densely populated with hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, who fled Aleppo and other areas as a result of the Russian and Assad regime's bombardment, which, in Idlib, has been continuing on an almost daily basis. So a highly complex battlefield environment.

So then insert an American Special Forces group even with the might of the United States, and its airpower behind them, highly complex also in terms of the intelligence.

Now it's conceivable, really, that the intelligence that led to al- Baghdadi must have come from people on the ground as much from signals intelligence, because he was actually in an area surrounded by unfriendly forces.

Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State split from each other and fought very hard against one another during the beginning of the so- called caliphate.

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KILEY: The significance of his death is largely symbolic but he was also the author of a lot of the ideological but management issues that underpinned particularly the management of savagery.

That is their term for how to very specifically use those ghastly videos on social media to distribute a terrorizing message that allowed them to magnetically attract jihadis from around the world because they actually had a so-called caliphate with a caliph, heretical position to assume for oneself in the eyes of what the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

But that is what al-Baghdadi did. But he did it, in being boxed into this area, away from where ISIS had any serious support on the ground, away from the putative capital in Raqqah but, in fact, inside the area controlled by Al Qaeda, just maybe four or five miles south of the Turkish border.

It begs the question, was he trying to make a run for it?

Was he trying to get his own family out of the country?

Perhaps that is the way he was exposed. No doubt we will, over the coming days, get much more detail on how this raid was conducted. But I think the other thing to bear in mind is this is a highly complex raid that in all probability did involve U.S. ground troops. At the very least to connect DNA material for testing so that they can identify who exactly they did kill in this raid.

So in all probability it was launched, the closest launch pad for them would have been Incirlik airbase here in Turkey, a very big American airbase, which would have provided at least the short flight time onto the target and then, of course, the extraction.

But an extremely daring raid that was almost inevitably will be spun by the remaining elements within the so-called Islamic State into a moment of martyrdom for their so-called caliph rather than being seen as a significant blow to them.

As you are suggesting, around the world, there will be security forces on a heightened state of alert for some time in order to protect other nations and indeed Iraq and Syria against revenge attacks.

But this is an organization much like Al Qaeda that now exists as an ideological hydra-headed creature rather than as it was in the past before it was physically destroyed as an area, as an entity that claimed and did control substantial swaths of the Middle East across Syria and Iraq.

ALLEN: Sam Kiley there for us on the border. We'll be hearing more about this operation. As you say, extremely daring that was carried out by Special Ops in the coming hours.

Be sure to stay with CNN. We'll continue to cover this breaking news, a U.S. military raid, believed to have killed the leader of ISIS. We'll be right back. (MUSIC PLAYING)

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ALLEN: If you are just joining us here at CNN, there has been a major development in the hunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The head of the terror group is believed to have died in a U.S. raid in northwest Syria. A source says al-Baghdadi apparently detonated a suicide voice as the operation was carried out and forces were closing in.

New video circulated by Syrian activists appears to show an air raid in northern Idlib province. Activists believe it is part of the operation targeting al-Baghdadi. But CNN at this moment cannot confirm the authenticity of this footage.

I want to bring in Rodger Shanahan from Sydney, Australia, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

And I know that you have worked with the U.N. in Lebanon and Syria in the past. So you are familiar with this region. First question to you, your reaction to the news of the probable death of the leader of ISIS and what it could mean.

RODGER SHANAHAN, RESEARCH FELLOW, LOWY INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY: There's two aspects to this. It's obviously a coup for the coalition who'd been hunting him for so long. But as previous people have said, we have to put it into perspective.

Organizations like Islamic State understand that the leadership will be killed at some stage, so there are always succession plans in place.

And the second element that's quite interesting is where he was killed. Most people believe that he was in Iraq, an area he knew much better and where he had perhaps the support of some tribal affiliations. But he was killed only a few kilometers from the Turkish border, which raises a whole new set of questions itself.

ALLEN: What are those questions?

Because this is an area where rebels had operated, where Al Qaeda is, an area where the Syrian government and Russia are not. And it's almost vaguely similar to when Osama bin Laden was finally found in an unlikely place, a town in Pakistan.

SHANAHAN: Yes, absolutely. I mean this raises on the first blush some uncomfortable questions for Turkey about how the leader of the Islamic State could be so close to the Turkish border without Turkey taking some action against him.

Also, why he would feel comfortable enough to be so close to the Turkish border and also the temporal proximity to the Turkish intercession into northern Syria and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal.

Was there some kind of deal or some kind of mea culpa from Ankara, from which they shot al-Baghdadi's location to Washington?

And this also reaffirms the kind of claims or allows Damascus and Moscow to reinforce their claims that their military action in trying to retake Idlib is because it is a haven to terrorists and here we are in that same province in Idlib, finding the leader of the Islamic State.

So there are going to be some medium-term repercussions from the location in which he was found.

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ALLEN: I'm glad you brought up the timing of this, at a time when President Trump has announced he's pulling troops out of Syria and that caused Turkey to encroach Syria to push back the Kurds. I heard an analyst say earlier this operation might have been for that reason, if troops were coming out of Syria, this was a time to move in on al- Baghdadi.

SHANAHAN: Yes, I mean, it's one of the fascinating aspects about this operation. We'll probably never actually know the answer, because those kind of intelligence exchanges are and will remain classified for years to come.

But as one of your previous reporters said, you know, one of the aspects of these kinds of operations is you want to make the transit times as short as possible. So it will be interesting to find out where this operation was launched from.

And it was, if it was operated or based out of Incirlik in southern Turkey, then that would indicate that the Turkish government was at the least consulted about this, if not party to it previously.

So the connection between this and the actions of the Turkish government and the U.S. withdrawal, I think over the next few days, plenty of people are going to be trying to make a link between the two.

ALLEN: All right, we appreciate your perspective, thanks so much for coming on. Rodger Shanahan for us from Australia. Thank you.

SHANAHAN: My pleasure.

ALLEN: Stay with CNN as we continue to cover this breaking news. A U.S. military raid is believed to have killed the leader of ISIS.

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

ALLEN: Welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Natalie Allen. If you are just joining us, we've been following breaking news over the past few hours that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. raid in Syria's northwest province of Idlib.

This nighttime video was taken by Syrian activists of a military operation as it got underway near the Turkish border. CNN cannot confirm that this is the actual raid targeting al-Baghdadi.

But a U.S. official tells CNN he apparently detonated a suicide vest as U.S. Special Forces closed in. DNA analysis will confirm whether it is in fact al-Baghdadi. The Islamic cleric has been in hiding for five years and we've been told locating him was based on CIA intelligence.

President Trump is expected to make a major announcement Sunday morning at 9:00 am Eastern. Earlier, he tweeted, "Something very big has just happened."

Let's talk more about it. I am joined by security expert Glenn Schoen from London via Skype.

We know very little except about the operation except that it happened in Idlib province. That's raising a lot of questions about that region, would be a hiding place for al-Baghdadi, very close to Turkey.

What do you make of that aspect?

GLENN SCHOEN, TERRORISM EXPERT: Not much yet. We know in the last week and a half because of the battlefield situation, there's a lot of fluidity and movement of forces and that includes hidden forces. In this case, the remnants of I.S., support elements of I.S., people who might be helping I.S. People move from one area to another.

So the fact that he was caught there, we don't yet know from the Americans what, what the reason was For his movement there and if he'd been there for a while or not, so I don't think we can read too much into the fact that he was caught there just yet.

ALLEN: By all accounts, this was a daring raid by Special Ops because of the complexities of Idlib province and all the different factions there and civilians as well.

What does that say to you?

SCHOEN: It says to me, well, one, this looks like an outstanding piece of work; again, on the quality of the level that we saw in the Osama bin Laden raid. The fact that we could maintain secrecy in that difficult environment. The fact that they were able to reach the target and actually be successful speaks highly of who was used here.

I think the advantage that U.S. forces had, probably here, compared to say the bin Laden raid is that they were likely positioned closer by. We had U.S. assets on the ground and in the air in battle zone, battle space around Idlib that we're much more familiar with and we have more intelligence on.

In some ways, you're right, a lot of moving parts, a lot of people to be wary of, difficult operating environment; on the other hand, also a battle space that U.S. knows and U.S. Special Operations Forces in particular.

ALLEN: We know ISIS is underground now in Syria but there are pockets of ISIS around the world yet. What we are reporting is the probable death of the leader of ISIS.

How significant is this?

SCHOEN: I'd say quite and, Natalie, you put your finger on it. It's one of the big questions here, other than did we gather much intelligence to exploit, is what's the big impact going to be. What's the impact going to be on the movement.

He, of course, was an unusual figure in that he was both a religious leader for I.S. as well as the de facto state leader, the Islamic State. So the notion of a country leader. And he combined those two elements and that makes him a rather rare figure and special in that regard.

The bigger question now for a lot of security analysts is what will be the reaction from I.S.?

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SCHOEN: Will they be able to mount a real response and is that only in the areas where they're strong at the moment or they have remnants left?

Think of parts of Turkey where they have infrastructure, think of Iraq.

And are they going to be looking for U.S. targets there to strike back or will they indeed be capable of pulling off something in the next few days, next few weeks in response to this further afield?.

And, of course, we know they've acted in Africa to Europe to Sri Lanka in recent months so it'll be a lot of security forces and intelligence services looking very closely at, are we going to see a powerful reaction in the next few weeks.

ALLEN: Right, because there are cells, as you say, around the world. The question is, how this will affect ISIS, the operation?

Do you expect that there will be a leader that steps right in where al-Baghdadi exited?

SCHOEN: I think it may take a while. I mean, clearly the movement has put him front and center as the top leader since 2013-2014. He has really carried the flag and been the symbol for that movement when we look at a personification. There are a number of other leaders, of course, who have come to the

fore in the second tier. But as a movement, it's really been one leadership, one person, who has been featured, much as we saw, you know, many dictators in the past being featured by singular movements.

So I think it's going to take a little while for somebody here to take his place. I think also they're going to have a hard time now because of their broken propaganda apparatus to move the new leader forward and make the same kind of lofty positioning as al-Baghdadi. So I think this will do a lot of damage to I.S.

ALLEN: One would hope so when we reflect back on the savage killings that ISIS ordered for so many years, so many people suffered around the world, because of this group founded by al-Baghdadi. Thank you so much for your perspective, Glenn Schoen for us.

SCHOEN: Thank you.

ALLEN: We'll continue to talk more about the significant development of a U.S. military raid believed to have killed the leader of ISIS.

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ALLEN: You're looking at video taken earlier, reportedly by Syrian activists, as a major military operation got underway near the Turkish border carried out by U.S. Special Ops. CNN cannot confirm this is the raid targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but we are told the ISIS leader is believed to be dead.

The U.S. and other countries have been hunting al-Baghdadi for five years, ever since he declared the ISIS caliphate from inside the Great Mosque of Mosul, Iraq, in 2014. CIA intelligence eventually led to a location in northwest Syria.

A U.S. Defense official says al-Baghdadi apparently killed himself with a suicide vest as U.S. commandos closed in. Our Nick Paton Walsh joins us from Irbil.

You've been following the story since it developed and covering this region for so long. We've been talking about what's next but let's back up and talk about the significance of finally reportedly catching up with this man.

WALSH: A number of officials now are saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. If that is the case, there are three major things to be concerned about.

Firstly, how is it that he came to be hiding what seems to be so close to the Turkish border under, it seems to be, an area controlled by Al Qaeda, kind of the ideological rival of ISIS? That's one issue that people will be trying to address.

The second is what does that mean now for the operatives that are still under the ISIS banner?

Do they respond to this death to some degree?

Are they waiting for this to happen to launch various attacks?

A lot of the ISIS attacks appear to be opportunistic and random and claimed by ISIS afterwards.

And then finally, too, exactly what this means for the U.S. operation inside Syria, too. There have been a very difficult two to three weeks in which their commander in chief has told them to withdraw from certain areas, enabling Turkey and Russia into the vacuum, concern that may have given rise to an ISIS regrouping.

But still, while that chaos was unfolding, this remarkable feat of taking out the world's most wanted man. We don't know how it came about; we don't know if the operation was launched from the NATO ally, with whom their relationship is very precarious at the moment, Turkey, or if the U.S. flew from further away, for example, where I'm standing Iraqi Kurdistan here.

But the net result is the same. And the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marks the end of a chapter, certainly, in ISIS' history. He was the man who authored the ideology. It was born from the insurgency in Iraq against the U.S. invasion presence there and sort of morphed or metastasized into what we saw in Iraq and Syria.

Taking on board, exploiting the grievances of Sunnis in Syria after the lengthy bombardments of the Assad regime in the north of the country, allowing that to foment the hatred, the loathing, so much of which you saw in their videos, so much of which was strategic, a bid to create an unbridgeable distance between those who supported ISIS and those who stood back and saw how revolting how much of what they espoused actually was.

But certainly, today, a question about the documentation of this, the location of where this occurred, the official confirmation from the United States, that it is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before we move on to what the implications are for the region -- Natalie.

[03:45:00]

ALLEN: All right, we'll be waiting to hear about it in a few hours from President Trump. Let's turn now to our Ben Wedeman. He is live for us in Beirut.

Let's talk more about al-Baghdadi and who he was as far as the leader of ISIS.

Was he highly regarded?

What did people think of him? WEDEMAN: Well, he was significant in the sense that he was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He was a man who oversaw the birth of the so-called Islamic State.

And he stood at the very pinnacle of the pyramid of power within the area controlled by ISIS at its peak, of course, was the size of Great Britain, ruling over 12 million people. But what was significant about al-Baghdadi is he only had one personal public appearance and that was in July of 2014, in the Grand Mosque of Mosul in Iraq.

He did not really develop a cult of personality. And, Natalie, when I spent two months in Eastern Syria, covering the fall of the so-called physical caliphate, we spoke with dozens of captured fighters, their wives, their children. And only a handful even mentioned the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The vast majority stressed their allegiance, the loyalty to the Islamic State. And it's not as if he made -- he made that one public appearance. He made very few public statements until actually the collapse of the Islamic State, the elimination of it.

And therefore, he wasn't the same sort of personality or public personality in the sense that Osama bin Laden was, who became famous in the 1980s when he led the so-called Arab Mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and was in the headlines from then until his death in Pakistan in 2011.

So Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death is significant. But as I've said before, ISIS still operates, according to the inspector general of the Pentagon, in -- by the thousands, thousands of fighters in Syria, in Iraq.

They're also present in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, in Libya, in West Africa, in Afghanistan, in the Philippines. They will not be disappearing just because the leader of the Islamic State is now dead -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Right, hopefully this will be an initial blow to those still working under ISIS and the flag. Thank you so much, Ben Wedeman for us in Beirut. Let's go now to CNN's Sam Kiley. He is on the Turkish- Syrian border, near where this operation was carried out.

And many questioning now how al-Baghdadi came to be hiding so close to the Turkish border there in Idlib province, Sam.

KILEY: Yes, remarkable place to have found him, again, echoes of the bin Laden raid, which was deep inside Pakistan, next to their officers' academy.

In this case, the world's most wanted man who's reportedly been killed according to U.S. officials, hiding deep in Al Qaeda territory or Al Qaeda-dominated area. Now the Islamic State were bitter ideological and military rivals of Al Qaeda, which indeed ISIS and al-Baghdadi split away from what was then Al Qaeda Franchise, the Nusra group, back in 2014, in order to form ISIS and actually fought against them, killing many in and around Raqqah. So not the obvious place to be hiding but very close indeed to Turkey,

some five miles inside Syria, close to the Turkish border in northwestern Idlib province, an area incredibly densely populated now with refugees from government forces and Russian forces' bombardment, mainly, of towns and cities like Aleppo and Homs and elsewhere where people have been in the opposition groups and have been heavily concentrated in Idlib town which itself, which that whole area has been almost constantly attacked by the regime and Russia.

So a very complex battle space to get involved in. CNN has had some uncorroborated eyewitness reporting from an individual who doesn't want to be named near a village or town called Sarmada, saying that they reckon there was fighting for at least an hour.

[03:50:00]

KILEY: That there was a -- clearly a number of aircraft, helicopters in the air. We've also seen video from that, what's reported, we believe to be from that location, saying very, very pinpoint strikes, airstrikes, the sounds of heavy machine guns heard.

And that dovetails with what U.S. officials are telling us that they will be conducting DNA testing on bodies recovered from that location, which means at the very least they had troops on the ground to retrieve them.

In this environment, in which not withstanding the rivalry between the so-called Islamic State and Al Qaeda, they are united in their hatred and detestation of the United States and all that that country stands for and all of her allies and would, no doubt, have relished the opportunity to engage in direct combat with American commandos on the ground.

So that would have meant that a very swift operation, possibly conducted out of Irbil or Turkish territory itself.

ALLEN: All right and we should be learning more from President Trump in just a few hours. And we don't know all the details, of course, at this point this early on in the operation, whether there were any casualties and how involved it was. But we did have our former CIA analyst, Bob Baer, saying it sounded like to him an invasion. So we'll get more about that.

Thank you, Sam Kiley, there on the border for us. We'll see you again as our coverage continues.

Again, a U.S. military raid is believed to have killed the leader of ISIS. We'll continue to talk about it as we carry on here. You're watching CNN.

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ALLEN: If you're just joining us, we want to recap the breaking news we've been following for the past few hours that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been killed in a U.S. raid in Syria's northwest province of Idlib.

This nighttime video was taken by Syrian activists as the military operation got underway near the Turkish border. CNN cannot confirm that this was the actual raid targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A U.S. Defense official tells CNN that al-Baghdadi apparently detonated a suicide vest as U.S. Special Forces closed in. DNA will confirm whether it is in fact al-Baghdadi. The Islamic cleric has been hiding for five years. We're being told the CIA helped locate him.

President Trump is expected to make a major announcement Sunday morning in about five hours. Earlier he tweeted, "Something very big has just happened."

Thank you for watching this hour. I'm Natalie Allen. I'll have more of our breaking news right after this.