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After death of ISIS leader, U.S. expects Islamic State to try to replace him

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the United States decided to strike the leader of ISIS inside a house in Syria, they put special forces troops on the ground rather than using a missile strike. President Biden said that was partly to avoid civilian casualties.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Knowing that this terrorist had chosen to surround himself with families, including children, we made a choice to pursue a special forces raid at a much greater risk than - to our own people, rather than targeting him with an airstrike.

INSKEEP: Some civilians were killed in the end. Though, the U.S. military blames the ISIS leader himself for a suicide bombing. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said yesterday the bottom line is that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, a man blamed for numerous terror attacks around the world, is dead.

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JOHN KIRBY: This was the leader of ISIS. And he was a very hands-on leader.

INSKEEP: Kirby gave some details yesterday. And he is on the line with us this morning. Mr. Kirby, welcome back.

KIRBY: Thanks, Steve, good to be with you.

INSKEEP: So this mission took two hours, which surprised some people when the news broke because the famous raid on Osama bin Laden was just 40 minutes. But you said yesterday, two hours was always the plan, two hours on the ground. What about this took two hours? And what happened in that time?

KIRBY: Two reasons for that. One, there was an innocent family on the first floor of the building, a family that we believe didn't even know that the leader of ISIS was on the third floor of that house. And we wanted to make sure we could get them out safely. No. 2, we had hoped to be able to capture Abdullah alive. And that, we figured, would require some doing, including the fact that he would resist or fight back, which of course, his lieutenant did even though he decided not to fight back.

And so there was always an expectation that we'd need about two hours on the ground in order to execute this mission. They had to make those call-outs over a bullhorn in Arabic to convince everybody in the house to come out.

INSKEEP: OK.

KIRBY: And of course, it took a little while to do that. I mean, you can understand, particularly that family on the first floor, probably scared, frightened. They didn't, obviously, know we were coming and coming in force. So it took a little bit. And then, of course, shortly after the bullhorn call-outs and trying to get that family out...

INSKEEP: Right.

KIRBY: ...Mr. Abdullah blew himself up. And then, of course, they had to enter into the building.

INSKEEP: OK. So you've said that this was a suicide bombing that seems to have caused civilian casualties or at least some of the civilian deaths. I'm sure there's video of this. It was watched in the Situation Room and so forth. Have you seen any video yourself? And is it consistent with what you're saying?

KIRBY: I have seen only a little bit of the video. I haven't seen all of it. But again, we talked to the assaulting force. So they've been debriefed. They've laid bare what they saw and what they did. We're very confident that the explosion on the third floor happened well before the assaulting force even got into the building. Certainly, there was no airstrike conducted. It was definitely the result of Mr. Abdullah's hand.

INSKEEP: Because there have been instances where U.S. strikes have turned out to be different than first described, will the United States release video of this one?

KIRBY: I think we're still working through all the documentation. And that would include the video. And I don't have any predictions to make in terms of what we'll be able to release or not. We did release a couple of photos yesterday. Again, we're working our way through that. And if we think that that's something that can be done and should be done, we'll certainly explore it.

INSKEEP: Do you believe that ISIS is going to be able to replace this leader and go on, as they did when the U.S. killed his predecessor a few years ago?

KIRBY: We're going to assume that they're going to try to replace him. This is an organization that wants to reconstitute. They want to grow. So we'll see, you know, how they try to react to this, to his loss. But we're going to assume they're going to try to keep going.

INSKEEP: We're talking to John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. And Rachel Martin is on the line. Of course, she's reporting this week from Ukraine. Rachel?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Admiral Kirby, thanks for taking the questions. I want to ask about this intelligence assessment that the Pentagon has confirmed, saying that Russia plans this false-flag operation. Can you explain briefly how that would work?

KIRBY: So what the indications are, Rachel, is that in this particular case that we talked about yesterday, they would manufacture an atrocity, an event, a killing, perhaps a mass killing. And they would do it with, you know, a slick video that would show corpses on the ground, perhaps corpses that they took out of other places - mortuaries or something like that. They would have actors as mourners. They would even, we think, stage imagery of military equipment that would make it look like it was actually Ukrainian instead of Russian.

MARTIN: They would be staging this in the part of Ukraine that Russian separatists' control. So this would be an alleged plot.

KIRBY: That's the basic idea. Yeah, stage it in perhaps somewhere where, you know, they have Russian-speaking citizens that they're concerned about. Their whole pretext here, Rachel, has been to put the blame on Ukraine. They call Ukraine the aggressor. And now they're starting - and you can see it in their public comments. They're starting to say that the West and Ukraine combined are the aggressor, and our national security as Russians are under threat from Ukraine. And of course, that's just preposterous.

MARTIN: Admiral...

KIRBY: Mr. Putin has more than 100,000 troops arranged across the border.

MARTIN: Do you have evidence of this, quote-unquote, "false-flag operation"?

KIRBY: Yeah. There's intelligence out there that we have that leads us to believe this. We wouldn't go public if it didn't. Now, I understand people are saying, you know, we ought to declassify that and show that. And I think, look; if there was a way to do this that wouldn't reveal how we know it, I think, you know, we'd be willing to look at that. But we also don't necessarily want the Russians to know how we know stuff.

MARTIN: Do you assess that this is something Russia has actually planned to do in Ukraine? Or is it something that they have developed as one of potentially several different options of what an incursion into Ukraine could look like or a pretense for foreign incursion?

KIRBY: I think it's hard to say exactly how far along they are in the planning process. But the latter way you described it is sort of where we are, that we know that this is just one of several options that they are exploring to try to create a public narrative that they are the victim and that Ukraine is the aggressor.

MARTIN: What are Ukrainian officials supposed to do with this information? After all, this is something that U.S. intelligence is saying is going to happen on their territory.

KIRBY: Well, we obviously are constantly discussing what we're seeing and our perspectives with Ukrainian counterparts. We certainly want them to be as informed as we are in terms of the potential here for conflict and where and when that might occur. We want to make sure that they have as much information as possible so that they can be prepared, you know, obviously, to defend themselves against what would be the precursor of a Russian attack.

MARTIN: Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby, we appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

KIRBY: It's great to be with both of you guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.