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Report: Al-Baghdadi Possibly Killed in Airstrike; Trump Goes Off on Russia. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired June 16, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:08] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Our breaking news this morning -- the leader of ISIS possibly killed in an air strike. We are live in Moscow with what the Russians are claiming this hour.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Dave Briggs. Friday, June 16th, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

That breaking news up first. Word this morning, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi may have been killed in an air strike. That according to "Reuters" citing Russian media.

ROMANS: Yes, and the reports say al Baghdadi, seen here in one of the video clips of him this is in Mosul in July 2014 giving a sermon. He may have been killed in a Russian airstrike last month.

CNN correspondent Diana Magnay live in Moscow with the breaking details.

What are Russian media saying about this May 28th air strike? And what kind of evidence are they giving to support the notion that they have killed this guy?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine, at the moment, it is Russian state media who say that the defense ministry is investigating information that al Baghdadi was killed in a May 28th Russian airstrike in the southern suburbs of Raqqah. The information they're getting is that he was attending a meeting at a command post there with various other ISIS personnel, trying to work out how to get ISIS fighters out of the city of Raqqah, which, of course, is being squeezed, both by Russian and Syrian forces and by the coalition, and that he may have been killed alongside others in a Russian airstrike on May 28th.

Now, of course, we have heard in the past reports that al Baghdadi has been killed. So, that is presumably by the Russians are caveating this with, we are investigating, we are trying to verify that he may have been killed.

But, of course, for the Russians, if this is true, it would mark a major victory in their campaign against ISIS, and I think it's important to note that if you read the way the defense ministry has been couching their campaign against terrorism in Syria, they have been saying these last few days that it has been the Russians and the airpower that they are providing to Syrian ground troops that have been doing the bulk of the fighting against ISIS and al Nusra in Syria, and that, in fact, the coalition, who, of course, have been leading air strikes on Raqqah, have been more involved in trying to target Syrian ground forces than they have terrorism, which is perhaps a line that is not surprising to come from the Russians.

And all of this, of course, comes in the context of ISIS being squeezed both in Iraq and Syria, Christine.

BRIGGS: Diana, for those at home wondering why it's just this one piece of video you're seeing of al Baghdadi, that's the only known video of one of the most dangerous men in the world. It was July of 2014, delivering a sermon in Mosul. Prior to that, only two known public pictures had been taken of al Baghdadi.

If you could give us a little context on why this would be so significant in the war against ISIS.

MAGNAY: Well, not only is he a secretive man, but he is one of the most wanted men in the world as the leader of ISIS, and of course, has built ISIS into this very, very powerful organization that it is. Mosul was always his base, and that was where that original video of him preaching a sermon came from, the video that is repeated over and over again when we talk about Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

But, of course, Mosul has been heavily bombarded. We are in the final stages of Mosul being taken by Iraqi ground forces, and that has resulted in ISIS being pushed out of Mosul to, through the border into Syria and up towards Raqqah. And now, that you're seeing the push on Raqqah in Syria in turn by coalition forces, by Syrian defense forces, members of the Syrian opposition coming in to push ISIS out of Raqqah, you are also getting a squeeze on them into the south of the city and out to cities like Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor.

And so, it is no surprise that Baghdadi may have been up in Raqqah, but there is also reports from U.S. intelligence that he was, perhaps, in Anbar province, which is now being pushed by -- which is now basically dominated by Shia militias. So, it is unclear, and, of course, we await to see what the Russians say, whether they can actually verify that information and what evidence they give us to prove that he was actually killed.

ROMANS: The brutality, Diana, of this man is well-documented on people of the region, no question.

[04:05:00] I mean, you've seen -- we've seen these beheadings. These, you know, burning people in oil. Any opponents of ISIS, the brutality is just sickening, no question about that.

For Americans, they may remember the story of Kayla Mueller, the young woman who was leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in 2013. She was an aide worker for Syrian children, and she was kidnapped by ISIS and tortured, raped, and ultimately killed in ISIS captivity and brutalized by this man, this very man.

This is someone who has been a top target of the Americans for some time. If he, indeed, was killed in this air strike, how does it change, one wonders, Diana, the leadership of ISIS?

MAGNAY: Well, that is the big question, to what extent has he sort of abrogated responsibility to those below him? There is, to a certain extent, a cult for ISIS that he has permeated throughout the organization, a culture of brutality that we saw in the attacks on Yazidis, in the enslavement of populations that is captured, and that is a hard sort of culture to eradicate from his many ISIS fighters.

But there is a leadership that is not just controlled by Baghdadi, but I think you can be sure will perpetuate even if he has been killed. I mean, al Qaeda, too, has managed to continue even with the death of Osama bin Laden. So, you can be sure that ISIS will reincarnate in some form, if, indeed, this man has been killed, that his brutality has been sort of perpetuated through the lower ranks. But exactly as to the sort of succession, leadership succession, that is unclear -- Christine.

BRIGGS: Many knew, or know, until this is confirmed, al Baghdadi as the invisible sheikh, again, pointing to the point that he has been invisible, very -- in stark contrast to al Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006 by a U.S. bombing. If there's success from al Baghdadi, it was in recruiting thousands of young jihadis, any sense of why he was so successful recruiting to the world's most despicable terror organization?

MAGNAY: I think he was benefited by the age in which he lived, the era of social media, an incredibly powerful media machine that he generated within ISIS, and that has been the tool that has made ISIS stand apart from other terrorist groups in modern times, in comparison to al Qaeda. It has managed to recruit through these incredibly powerful recruitment videos and bring in foreign fighters from across the Middle East and across the West also. And that is something that al Baghdadi clearly understood extremely well, how to make ISIS not just an incredibly brutal organization in terms of its capabilities on the ground, its capabilities in capturing territory in Iraq and Syria, but in pushing that message out through social media, through the power of ISIS' incredibly brutal, violent propaganda to willing recruits all around the world -- Dave.

ROMANS: Let me read to you what sputnik is reporting. That's English-language, state-run, Russian media. They say this ISIS leader may have been killed alongside other leaders of the extremist group and 330 terrorists. This was in a Russian air force strike in Syria, they report, on May 28th.

The defense ministry saying that it was a military council south of Raqqah in northern Syria on May 28th they were targeting. They say, again, this leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and 330 terrorists.

What -- when -- I guess we won't have exact confirmation. This was -- May 28th was a couple weeks ago, a couple of -- three weeks ago --

BRIGGS: Two-plus weeks ago, yes.

ROMANS: So, I guess at what point, I wonder, when we'll get some real confirmation here. It has been, Diana, I mean, hoped for that this guy would be taken out for some time. And there had been rumors before that he has been struck.

MAGNAY: There have. There have been numerous reports before that al Baghdadi has been killed, and that's why the Russians are being quite careful before they definitively say that he has.

It would make sense for him to be in Raqqah. That original video that you're talking about in Mosul, that was his home base. That's where he started out.

But Mosul, of course, has -- is at the brink of falling as a result of this long campaign by Iraqi forces.

[04:10:05] It is no surprise that ISIS has been pushed out of Iraq and towards Raqqah, which was always its base in Syria. But because of the onslaught on Raqqah, they seem to have been squeezed out. And what Russian media is saying is that this was a meeting at a command post in the south of the city where al Baghdadi, apparently, and also other commanders, were trying to work out how to filter the remaining ISIS fighters out of Raqqah as the onslaught from Russian airpower and also from coalition airstrikes continues.

So, it would make sense if, perhaps, there was a gathering of high- level ISIS leaders. They also say around 300 ISIS middlemen who were killed in this airstrike. If that number of people were killed, it must have been a very, very significant airstrike, but it would make sense for them to be there, to be discussing how to get people out of Raqqah and down towards Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra, where are two other Syrian towns where we believe ISIS fighters are sort of filtering from those main hubs, which are now still under attack from coalition and Syrian and Russian forces.

BRIGGS: To your point, Diana, and a great point, that his success in recruiting was because they had used social media, unfortunately, so well. Where would we look for some acknowledgement from ISIS that this is, in fact, true? Have they been announcing credit for these terrorist activities via Twitter, via Facebook? Or where will we look for some sort of announcement?

MAGNAY: There are sites that ISIS uses to put out its messages, and those are specific sites that ISIS watchers go to. There is also "Dabiq," which is of course, its magazine where it will put announcements out. I imagine that is, too, will be very hesitant about actually coming out and confirming the death of al Baghdadi, if he has, indeed, been killed. It will be a major blow, both in reputational terms, if you will, for ISIS, and it will be interesting to see whether they do, in fact, come out on one of those platforms and confirm his death, if the Russians do end up confirming it.

ROMANS: Diana Magnay for us this morning.

Again, state-run media in Russia saying al Baghdadi -- Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, may have been killed in an airstrike on May 28th. We will continue to watch all of this and get new developments as they happen. Thanks, Diana.

BRIGGS: We'll also have much more on the new Russia investigation. The special counsel goes on a hiring spree as the president goes off, calling these bad people. The vice president also lawyering up when it comes to the Russia investigation. All the latest details next on EARLY START.


[04:17:12] ROMANS: New developments in the Russia investigation this morning. Special counsel Robert Mueller bringing 13 lawyers on board to help with the probe, and we are told he is not done hiring.

"The Washington Post" reporting Mueller's team is now investigating the finances and dealings of the president's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. A lawyer for Kushner says they don't know what the report refers to, since it would be standard practice for the special counsel to examine financial records to look for anything related to Russia.

BRIGGS: CNN has already reported the FBI is looking into Kushner's role with the campaign. The report would cite that U.S. officials also appeared to prompt an unusual statement from the Justice Department. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein denounced anonymous allegations and unnamed sources. He says in part: America should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous officials, particularly when they do not identify the country -- specific reference to the country -- let alone the branch or agency of government with which the alleged sources are reportedly affiliated.

ROMANS: That's a remarkable statement.

BRIGGS: That is astounding.

ROMANS: Warning about leaks and how you should view those leaks. Also developing --

BRIGGS: Particularly the country. I can't get past the wording of that.


Also developing, the Senate Intelligence Committee announcing it will not be looking into possible obstruction of justice by the president. "The Washington Post" reported Wednesday the special counsel is probing that angle. Now, the leaders of the Senate panel say they will focus instead on Russian meddling and possible collusion.

BRIGGS: CNN's Athena Jones trying to get the president to respond to the obstruction report to no avail.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, do you believe that you are under investigation now? Mr. President, do you now believe -- do you want to comment on camera to "The Washington Post" report, Mr. President?


BRIGGS: President Trump keeping mum on camera. He had plenty to say, though, on Twitter.

We get more on that from CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, there is a policy here at the White House to not comment on the Russia investigation, the ongoing Russia investigation. That, of course, does not apply to the man in the Oval Office, President Trump. He made his views perfectly clear throughout the day on Thursday, from morning until evening, going after the investigation, calling it a witch hunt. He called it a phony investigation.

And then he went after Hillary Clinton herself in a series of messages on social media, saying what about her dealings with Russia? It certainly underscores the challenge here and the frustration in the minds of the president going forward as this Russia investigation goes forward, and it is widening, indeed.

The vice president, he has hired a personal lawyer. That was announced Thursday evening. Richard Cullen, a former Virginia attorney general, a former U.S. attorney from Virginia, will be representing the vice president separately in this investigation.

[04:20:06] So, the president trying to get back on message, but he's doing that today by flying to Miami, to basically rewrite, revise, retract some of President Obama's policy on Cuba, on travel, on other things on Cuba. So, the president doing that to try and get back on message, but, boy, this Russia cloud still waiting for him here in Washington. It deepens in many respects -- Christine and Dave.


BRIGGS: Jeff Zeleny at White House there.

There are signs of unity as Congress comes together in the wake of the shooting on Republicans, but can the goodwill last away from the ball field? We'll have the latest from the congressional baseball game and the sights and sounds ahead on EARLY START.


[04:25:10] BRIGGS: Democrats and Republicans putting unity on display at the annual congressional baseball game. It comes in the wake of Wednesday's shooting rampage aimed at the Republican team.

How deep unity runs, how long it lasts? Well, that's anybody's guess, but lawmakers' efforts at last night's yearly congressional game were certainly a good start. Just a day after the shooting that injured six, including Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise, lawmakers huddled in prayer at second base, the position Scalise was playing when he was shot.

ROMANS: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority leader Nancy Pelosi both wearing Louisiana gear in Scalise's honor. Speaking to CNN, the top Republican and Democrat tried to project a message of unity.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: Tonight, we're all team Scalise.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: What we're trying to do is tone down the rhetoric, lead by example, and show people, we can disagree with one another, we can have different ideas without being vitriolic, without going to such extremes.


ROMANS: The game started with a very special ceremonial first pitch thrown by Capitol Police Special Agent David Bailey, who was injured in that attack.

BRIGGS: President Trump recorded a special video message, shown on the JumboTron before the game.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In Washington, we have our disagreements, but we all agree that we are here to serve this nation we love. On this special night, I leave you with three great American words that for generations have torn down barriers, built bridges of unity, and defied those who have sought to pull us apart. Ladies and gentlemen, let's play ball.


ROMANS: As for the game, turned out to be an easy win for Democrats, who walked over the GOP team, 11-2, but when Democrats were presented with the winning trophy, they turned right around and gave it back to the Republican team so it could sit on Congressman Scalise's -- in his office. Nearly 25,000 tickets were sold to the game, first played in 1909, raising a million dollars for charity. Great.

BRIGGS: Yes, that's great. $50,000 of that came in a form of a check presented by Ivanka Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on behalf of the friends in the Trump administration.

Meantime, doctors say Scalise has improved, though he remains in critical condition. He underwent a second surgery Thursday to repair internal injuries and a broken bone in his leg. Officials say Scalise will require further operations, will remain in the hospital for, quote, some time.

ROMANS: We wish all of them -- all of them well as they heal and get past this terrible event.

Breaking this morning: Russia is investigating whether it killed one of the most wanted men alive, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The latest live from Moscow, next.