ISIS Claims Responsibility For Explosion In Syria That Killed U.S. Troops

Jan 16, 2019
Originally published on January 16, 2019 8:48 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When President Trump announced last month that he is ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, he said ISIS was defeated. Vice President Mike Pence repeated that claim today even as ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. That explosion killed four Americans and at least a dozen others. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio now to tell us more. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What do we know about this attack?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. military released a statement saying two American soldiers were killed in a bombing along with an American contractor. He was an interpreter, I'm told. Also, a Defense Department employee was killed. Three soldiers were injured, and one official tells me that three soldiers are in stable condition. And again, at least a dozen or so civilians were killed according to local reports.

SHAPIRO: We have not seen a U.S. death toll in Syria comparable to Afghanistan or Iraq. This is unusual. You've been to Manbij. Describe the place where this happened, and explain why U.S. troops are patrolling there.

BOWMAN: Well, Manbij is just 19 miles from the Turkish border. It was retaken from ISIS way back in August of 2016. And I was there last February with the U.S. military. And what's remarkable is we walked around without body armor. It was remarkably calm. It's a vibrant, bustling city, has a huge market selling all sorts of goods and produce. We went to a girls' school. Everybody was happy to be back in school - went to government offices, talked to all sorts of people. You would never get a sense that there was a shot fired in anger there.

Now, U.S. troops have been working in the city with local military council, so there is that presence in the city. And they're also patrolling with Turkish troops outside the city. But I remember even back then, residents and the U.S. military were saying that some ISIS fighters were kind of slipping back into the city. So that was a concern even but a year ago.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about these statements from the administration that ISIS is defeated and how that can possibly be reconciled with the fatal attack that we saw today.

BOWMAN: It can't. And first of all, ISIS has not been defeated, and no one seems to know why the president said that. And just today, as you mentioned, Vice President Mike Pence made a similar statement. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.

(APPLAUSE)

BOWMAN: Again, that's not accurate. Most of the caliphate has been retaken, but there's still some left. There's a very tough fight in northeastern Syria along the Iraqi border. There are at least a couple of thousand ISIS fighters holed up, desperate and fighting hard. The U.S. is still bombing ISIS targets in Syria. They put out the numbers of airstrikes every week or so. So it just makes no sense why these statements are coming.

And I'm told initially the president wanted all U.S. troops out in a month. Officials said they need more time and got it. But a withdrawal has begun. Some U.S. equipment has been moved out. But at this point, not any of the 2,000 U.S. troops have left.

SHAPIRO: When you talk to the military leaders who are actually waging the fight against ISIS, what do they tell you it'll take to defeat them for real on the ground?

BOWMAN: Well, they say it'll take at least two, three more months. Again, they're dug in in this area called Hajin close to the Iraqi border. They've built berms and tunnels and have bombs ready to go off in cars. So it's a tough fight. And they have suicide bombers as well. It's going to take some time. And also, after the caliphate comes to an end, then the question is, then what? The U.S. says it's necessary to train 30,000 or 40,000 local security forces. That's only just begun.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.