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Syrians React To Death Of ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi


Next we're going to hear from Syrians about how they see the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Syrian land made up much of the so-called caliphate that ISIS ruled and where it killed thousands of people. The group's extreme ideology still has backers, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Beirut.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: A Syrian search and rescue team provided this video of the rubble from the home U.S. forces attacked where al-Baghdadi died. A rescue worker recovered bodies but won't say anything more, afraid of retribution from al-Baghdadi sympathizers. Across Syria, residents who spent years under ISIS rule say they're thrilled to hear al-Baghdadi is dead. We called Mohammad Khedir, who leads a group of Syrian researchers documenting ISIS atrocities.

MOHAMMED KHEDIR: (Through interpreter) It's very happy news. Every family in Raqqa or Deir Ezzor or northern Iraq - they're celebrating. The person responsible for the death of their sons has died, so they have gotten their revenge, even if it's from someone who's also responsible for the deaths of many of their sons.

ESTRIN: He's talking about the U.S.-led coalition that defeated ISIS but used overwhelming firepower that rights groups say killed many more civilians than it did ISIS fighters.

KHEDIR: (Through interpreter) People believe one criminal killed another criminal.

ESTRIN: This doesn't surprise Jeremy Shapiro, who worked on Syria policy at the State Department under the Obama administration.

JEREMY SHAPIRO: People in that area are pretty jaded about the United States. The fact that they are not sad that Baghdadi is dead isn't going to change their opinion of the U.S.

ESTRIN: Some Syrians say even though al-Baghdadi has gone, his group's appeal remains. Thirty-year-old Essam told us his neighbors joined ISIS several years ago and that youth in his city who lived under ISIS still believe in the group's messages.

ESSAM: (Through interpreter) Baghdadi's death is the end of ISIS right now, but it could reemerge because the ideology is still here.

ESTRIN: In March, U.S.-led forces drove ISIS fighters out of their last held territory in Syria. ISIS fighters are now in prisons there, and their wives are in detention camps. We contacted a Syrian humanitarian worker who's in touch with the detainees to hear what they were saying. He called them on their smuggled cell phones and provided us with recordings of someone from Iraq and the other from France. He asked us to alter their voices so they're not punished by their Syrian guards.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We remain, we remain, we remain. We aren't just here for one person. The jihad will continue. We are all soldiers of Baghdadi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) If Baghdadi is dead, there are tens of thousands of Baghdadis. Do not think we are over. We are like a boiling volcano in constant eruption.

ESTRIN: Other women in these detention camps say they regret joining ISIS. One Tunisian woman texts us that she is relieved by al-Baghdadi's death for luring thousands like her to flock to Syria only to get killed and detained. She said he'll be rewarded with hell, but she says she and the women detained with her don't trust President Trump's account that al-Baghdadi died a coward's death. She says nobody believes Trump's tales.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.