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'Dangerous and daring' U.S. raid ends in Islamic State leader's death
Tracked down in Syria, Baghdadi detonated vest, killing himself and 3 children; Trump says 'he died a coward'

WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump and senior advisers settled into the Situation Room on Saturday evening, elite U.S. forces more than 6,000 miles away launched one of the most significant counterterrorism operations in the campaign against the Islamic State.

Taking off in eight helicopters from northern Iraq, the troops flew over hostile territory for hundreds of miles in the early Sunday morning darkness.

Their target, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal founder and leader of the Islamic State, was holed up in a compound in northwestern Syria with family members and associates, and the United States had been watching him for days.

And it was a tip from a disaffected Islamic State militant that set the operation in motion, according to a U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive operation.

What followed was what Trump called a "dangerous and daring nighttime raid" that was carried off "in grand style." It ended, he said, with Baghdadi fleeing from advancing U.S. forces into a dead end tunnel and detonating a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children.

"He didn't die a hero. He died a coward," the president said. "Crying, whimpering, screaming and bringing kids with him to die. Certain death."

Other U.S. officials declined to describe Baghdadi's state in his last moments.

The disaffected Islamic State member had become an informant for Kurdish forces working with the Americans, the official said. And he provided critical information on Baghdadi's whereabouts.

The informant emerged in early summer, and over time U.S. officials became more confident in his credibility and reliability, the official said. Within the past couple of weeks, it became clear that, when put together with other information, the tip about Baghdadi's location was solid, the official said.

"It was a montage of a lot of pieces of intelligence that came together with a specific asset that was helpful," the official said.

How the operation — named for Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who was abducted and raped repeatedly by Baghdadi before she was killed, according to U.S. officials — came together is still something of a mystery. The troops included some Delta Force members, according to two U.S. officials, but other details, such as how they communicated with more senior commanders in Washington and beyond, and what weapons were involved, remain unknown.

Among the details that remain unknown are the composition of the force involved and how they communicated with more senior commanders in Washington and beyond.

But in colorful and at times taunting language, Trump revealed details Sunday morning of an operation that marks one of the major victories in the five-year U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.

The president, speaking at the White House, said he "got to watch" much of the raid beginning about 5 p.m. in Washington. He credited undisclosed technology for giving him "absolutely perfect" visuals that were "as though you were watching a movie."

Trump, who returned to the White House from golfing about 4 p.m., entered the Situation Room about an hour later, he said. Seated at a table in a suit and tie, he was flanked in a photo released by the White House by Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien and two generals: Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, the Pentagon's deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism.

Flying after midnight in the Middle East, the helicopters needed to cross airspace controlled by Iraq, Turkey and Russia, and U.S. officials told them that they had an operation planned without providing details. With the Russians in Syria, the Pentagon has called such communication "deconfliction" and said it has prevented accidents and mistaken intent by adversary forces.

When they arrived, they tried to call Baghdadi out to see whether he would surrender, Esper said. A couple of adults and 11 children came out, said one U.S. official with knowledge of the operation, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Baghdadi remained inside, as U.S. officials assumed he might.

U.S. forces responded by blowing holes into the side of the compound in an effort to avoid booby-trapped doors, Trump said. Baghdadi retreated into a tunnel, and then detonated his vest.

Five enemy fighters were killed in the operation inside the compound, and others were killed outside, the White House said in a statement. O'Brien, speaking in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," said U.S. troops confirmed that Baghdadi was dead at 7:15 p.m. in Washington.

"The commander of the mission called and said, '100 percent confidence, jackpot. ... Got him. One hundred percent confidence jackpot, over,' " O'Brien said.

Despite Baghdadi's vest detonating, U.S. troops were able to recognize him, the official said. A ground commander reported to Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command, that they were "absolutely convinced" it was the Islamic State leader. McKenzie in turn relayed that message to the White House. The results of the DNA test were completed Sunday morning, the official said.

Milley was "emphatic" that the military had to dispose of Baghdadi's remains in accordance with Muslim traditions, which typically require burial within 24 hours, the official said. When Navy SEALs killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, his body was buried at sea after traditional Islamic rites were performed. It was not clear Sunday whether that occurred in this case.

The remains of at least two wives were left behind. Trump said they had not detonated their vests and were still wearing them, making it too risky for U.S. troops to dispose of the bodies.

Trump said that one U.S. working dog — described by the president as "beautiful" and "talented" - was wounded after chasing Baghdadi into the tunnel. Trump said no U.S. troops were injured, but Esper said separately that two service members suffered minor injuries.

They've already been returned to duty," Esper said, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union."

Fewer than 100 U.S. troops took part in the raid, with more involved in a supporting role, Esper said. Several kinds of aircraft were used in the operation, including CH-47 helicopters. They came under fire early in the mission from "locals in the area," and the Americans returned fire in self-defense, he said.

Videos circulating on social media on Sunday from Barisha, the small village in northwestern Syria where the raid occurred, appear to depict helicopters flying at low altitudes in the dark, heavy gunfire and occasional explosions. Images taken after daybreak show the home where Baghdadi lived reduced to rubble. Esper said it was deliberately destroyed.

Trump and other U.S. officials credited Syrian Kurdish forces — whose alliance in the battle against the militants the president has recently played down as he withdraws forces from Syria — with providing useful information. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said in a tweet that they had been gathering information about Baghdadi for five months, while Trump said the operation itself started two weeks ago, once the United States had him "scoped."

"We thought he would be in a certain location," the president said. "He was. Things started checking out very well."

But it wasn't clear how long Baghdadi would stay in Barisha, which is west of Aleppo.

Pence, speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," said the United States first received information about Baghdadi's most recent location early in the week.

"Through a combination of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, we believe we knew where he would be, and by Thursday afternoon were informed that there was a high probability he would be at the compound in Idlib province," Pence said.

The president directed the military to develop options, and they were presented on Friday, Pence said. "Actionable intelligence" obtained Saturday allowed the raid to go forward, he added.

"It was incredible to be in the Situation Room and to see this unfold in real time as our Special Forces were on the ground, to see their professionalism over a period of two hours," he said. "America and the world are safer today with the leader of ISIS dead."


Plus
Nebraska boy, 2, receives new $2.1 million gene therapy for rare disorder. 'He's doing fantastic'

When Levi Thoene was just past 6 months old, his parents were told he had a rare genetic condition that meant he probably wouldn’t reach his second birthday.

Called spinal muscular atrophy, it meant his body couldn’t produce enough of a protein that certain nerve cells in his spinal cord need to survive. The condition leads to weakened muscles, including those needed for vital functions like breathing and swallowing.

On Tuesday, Levi turned 2. And in defiance of his earlier prognosis, his parents are seeing signs that he’s making gains.

He can now sit up for 15 minutes or more, said mom Morgan Thoene (pronounced Tay-nee) of Ralston. He’s moving his arms and hands more, and he can do more to signal his wants and needs. His cough is stronger, and he’s starting to say words, including “no,” the staple of toddler vocabulary.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Brandon Thoene, left, and Morgan, right, sit with their son Levi sit up during a visit to his doctor at Children's Hospital on Friday, October 18, 2019. Levi, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a month ago received a new gene therapy called Zolgensma and has been recently able to sit up on his own for the first time.

“Anything he does is a surprise, and a blessing, that he’s doing it as well as he is,” said Brandon Thoene, his dad.

A month ago, Levi became the first child in Nebraska to receive a new gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy called Zolgensma since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in May.

Zolgensma made headlines as one of the first gene therapies with the potential to stop the progression of — possibly cure — a genetic condition. The one-time treatment also comes with a price tag of $2.1 million.

Two other children received the treatment in Nebraska before it was federally approved as part of a compassionate use program, said Clarity Devney of Tekamah. Her son, Eli, was the first Nebraska child to receive it. His condition, however, was more severe than Levi’s. Unfortunately, she said, he did not show progress. “We were so grateful he got the opportunity,” she said.

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About 1 in 11,000 babies are born with SMA, according to Cure SMA, an advocacy group. There are four main types, with Type 1, the version Levi has, being the most serious of those and the most common.

Before starting the new treatment, Levi had been getting a different therapy called Spinraza, the first drug available to treat the condition.

While Spinraza gives a defective gene in SMA patients an assist, Zolgensma replaces it, said Dr. Geetanjali Rathore, neurology division chief and director of the neuromuscular clinic at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha.

No studies have yet been done to compare the two drugs. While plenty of questions remain unanswered, including about the therapies’ long-term performance, both are preventing progression of the disease and resulting in improvements, Rathore said.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD  

Dr. Geetanjali Rathore examines Levi Thoene just before his second birthday at Children’s Hospital on Friday, October 18, 2019. Thoene has spinal muscular atrophy and recently received a new gene therapy called Zolgensma.

As a result, doctors for the first time have treatments to offer patients and their families, beyond feeding tubes, ventilators and other supportive care.

“I think that’s huge, that’s huge for us and the SMA population,” said Rathore, who well remembers her first SMA patient. A beautiful, 6-month-old girl and her parents’ first child, she was too old for the early Spinraza trials available at the time. She didn’t survive her first year.

Last week, Rathore saw Levi for his one-month follow-up since starting the gene therapy. He’s also getting weekly lab tests to check for any side effects and make sure the treatment isn’t affecting his liver or heart.

While it’s still early days, Rathore said she’s very pleased with the progress Levi is making. He’s had no side effects and his lab tests are stable.

“I am hoping to continue to see much more improvement,” she said. Doctors typically see more measurable motor milestones starting at three months after treatment. At six months, they’ll do a formal assessment of motor function.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD  

Brandon Thoene, left, fist-bumps his son Levi during a visit to his doctor at Children’s Hospital on Friday, October 18, 2019. Levi, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a month ago received a new gene therapy called Zolgensma and has been recently able to sit up on his own for the first time.

Meantime, the availability of treatments is creating new urgency to begin treatment for SMA as soon as possible, before the lack of the needed protein leads to permanent loss of neurons — and function.

Unpublished data presented at medical conferences indicates that very young children treated before they develop symptoms all are doing extremely well, developing almost normally, Rathore said.

That calls for earlier diagnosis. Federal health officials added SMA to their list of recommended screenings for newborns in 2018.

The Nebraska Newborn Screening Advisory Committee voted in March to recommend adding SMA to the state’s newborn screening panel, the tests all babies are given at birth. State health officials anticipate that legislation to require the screening will be introduced in January. Ten states, including Missouri and Minnesota, already have implemented the testing, according to Cure SMA. Iowa will decide whether to add it in 2021, pending successful completion of a pilot project expected to start next summer.

Rathore, who spoke in favor of adding the test, said the SMA screening can be performed using the same heel-prick blood sample now collected from newborns before they leave the hospital.

The tests, which now check for more than 30 conditions, look for conditions that would not be apparent just by looking at a baby and that can be treated effectively if identified early. They’re credited with saving babies’ lives each year and preventing neurological and other developmental delays.

Morgan Thoene said the family plans to push the Nebraska Legislature to add SMA to the panel. She writes about Levi’s journey on the Facebook group “Life of Levi.”

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Morgan Thoene, left, comforts her son Levi during a visit to his doctor at Children's Hospital on Friday, October 18, 2019. Levi, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a month ago received a new gene therapy called Zolgensma and has been recently able to sit up on his own for the first time.

Starting therapy before symptoms develop, she said, could head them off. When Levi was diagnosed in April 2018, the Thoenes, both teachers at area schools, knew nothing about the condition. Levi had been hospitalized beginning in March for failure to thrive. He wasn’t gaining weight, he didn’t cry very loudly and his cough was weak. He certainly wasn’t as active as his older brother, Elliot, now 5.

Levi began receiving Spinraza, which the FDA approved in 2016, shortly after he was diagnosed. The drug must be injected into the fluid surrounding the spine every four months — indefinitely. The cost is estimated at $750,000 for the first year and at $375,000 a year thereafter. Children’s so far has treated 18 patients with that drug.

After Zolgensma was approved by the FDA, staff at Children’s worked hard to get it OK’d internally for use at the hospital, Rathore said. It’s federally approved for children under age 2. Levi, who started it Sept. 20, made it just under the wire.

“Spinraza was great because it allowed him to get a lot of gains,” Morgan Thoene said. “But this has produced even more.”

The gene therapy, given intravenously, is delivered by a virus that has had its genetic material removed. It’s replaced with the gene that codes for the lacking protein. But rather than integrating with the patient’s DNA, it sits on the side and goes to work to increase production of the protein.

In Levi’s case, the costs were shared by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska and Medicaid.

Multiple studies, she said, found that the cost of caring for patients with SMA Type 1 — think ventilators, wheelchairs, hospitalizations — significantly outpaced the annual cost of Spinraza. Those studies haven’t yet been done yet for Zolgensma, but the therapy is expected to be cost-effective in the long term, particularly if it proves to be a one-time therapy.

Efforts are under way to expand both treatments to more kids. Children’s is on the list to become a center for trials of Zolgensma in children older than 2 who have less severe forms of the disease.

The hospital also has begun a study to gauge improvements in quality of life in such patients. That will focus on more subtle but still important changes such as whether patients can eat by themselves and how much help they need to move. It’s new territory, Rathore said, because the focus with SMA patients has for so long been on survival.

The Thoenes celebrated Levi’s big milestone at home, just the four of them. They planned to mark the occasion with extended family and friends Sunday with a gathering at an area pizzeria.

For now, they’re celebrating the progress he’s made. Said Morgan Thoene, “He’s doing fantastic.”

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha

State_and_regional
So you want to reduce property taxes in Nebraska? It's not that easy

LINCOLN — So, the state is forecast to have extra revenue, about $266 million, and Gov. Pete Ricketts and others say the money should be used for property tax relief measures next year.

But it’s far from a simple matter to cut taxes, and recent discussions by the legislative committee that oversees tax policy indicate that there are still vast differences over how any extra money should be used. The clock is ticking — the Legislature’s Revenue Committee wants to agree on a plan by Nov. 21.

Here are some key takeaways in the ongoing debate about property tax relief in the Nebraska Legislature:

First, some background

The state has been struggling for years to reduce historically high property taxes in Nebraska, a state with plenty of land and not enough people. This spring, plans proposed by the Revenue Committee fell about five votes short of advancing. It showed, once again, that while everyone seems to want property taxes to go down, there’s broad disagreement about how to do it.

But some good news arrived last week. The state’s economic forecasting board projected that Nebraska would have an extra $161 million in revenue next year, and $105 million the next. The money, according to Ricketts and some senators, should be used to lower property taxes.

But how do you do it?

That’s the snag. The easiest solution would be to add another $100 million a year to the state’s property tax credit program, which provides a state discount on local property tax bills.

But some members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, especially the chairwoman, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, don’t like the credit program. She argues that it doesn’t actually reduce local property tax bills — it just gives a temporary discount — and doesn’t structurally change the state’s taxes.

Linehan also feels that it gives some local school districts and other taxing entities a license to raise property taxes, because it will be offset by the state property tax credit.

But some farm groups, as well as the governor, like the property tax credits. People would explode in anger, they feel, if the credits went away.

What’s Linehan’s idea?

Linehan and Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte have a goal of reducing property taxes by 20%. They are floating a plan to use $400 million to $500 million of the state’s excess revenue over the next two to five years to reduce property taxes.

First, they’d lower the valuation of agricultural land used for computing property taxes due for local education from the current 75% of actual value to 55%, which would cut taxes for farmers. Some state money also would be distributed on a per pupil basis to each local school, which is known as foundation aid.

In the second year, they’d lower the valuation of residential and commercial properties to 80% of actual value (from the current 100%), providing a tax break to owners of commercial and residential property. They both want to increase state aid to K-12 schools, which would offset the local tax load. There would also be new restrictions on spending increases for local education.

Linehan said the governor wants to dig deeper into the details of the new plan and spread the changes out over several years. But limiting government spending and using the savings to accomplish property tax relief is what Ricketts has been preaching for weeks. “The root of our tax problem,” Ricketts recently wrote, is spending, and controlling it is the only way to achieve “real, sustainable tax relief.”

Sounds like a great idea, right?

Not to everybody. Some senators on the Revenue Committee expressed concerns Friday about financing tax reductions with such excess funds.

Revenue surpluses don’t happen every year, and haven’t occurred in recent years. Can the state bank on such surpluses in years to come? What happens if forecasts go flat, or negative, as in a recession?

Such excess revenue automatically goes to the state’s cash reserve, known as the “rainy day fund.” And that fund, because of lackluster tax revenue in recent years, has been drawn down. So some senators think the new $266 million should be used to replenish the rainy day account. And, oh, by the way, Nebraska had a major flood this year, and word is about $40 million will be needed from the cash reserve for that.

What about repealing some sales tax exemptions? Or taxing services?

That was the approach of the Revenue Committee this spring in Legislative Bill 289 — repeal a bunch of sales tax exemptions on things like junk food and pop, and start taxing auto repairs and other services to create a “tax shift.” It’s an approach used by several states, and one supported by some Nebraska think tanks to help lower property taxes.

But Ricketts hates the idea of raising some taxes to lower others, calling it “reverse Robin Hood.” And some on the Revenue Committee feel that without the governor’s support, that plan is dead in the water.

Linehan is now thinking that major tax reform, like broadening the sales tax base, might have to wait until after 2020. By June, a consultant hired by the recent Blueprint Nebraska effort to boost economic growth in the state will issue a report about the state’s tax system. That report, the senator said, could provide the ammunition for major tax reform.

But some rural senators, like Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, maintain that major changes, for his farm and ranch constituents, can’t wait. He said that spending cuts alone won’t achieve major reductions in property taxes. Both he and another rural senator, Curt Friesen of Henderson, believe that big tax changes could be phased in, over four to five years if necessary.

What about the ‘35% Solution’ ballot initiative?

That initiative, which its backers hope will qualify for the 2020 ballot, makes some senators nervous. If passed by voters, it would force the Legislature to figure out how to find $1.5 billion to provide all property owners with a state income tax credit equal to 35% of their annual property tax bill.

Some lawmakers and the governor predict chaos, and either massive cuts in services or big increases in sales, income or even property taxes.

Revenue Committee members on Friday debated “how much” property tax relief must be passed in the 2020 legislative session to take the wind out of the sails of the initiative drive. Organizers recently opened campaign offices in the Omaha area. Is $100 million a year enough? Not really, some senators said.

A big “if” is whether the ballot initiative can qualify for the ballot. The TRUE Nebraskans group (“Tax Relief Unites Everyone”) needs to collect at least 120,000 valid signatures by next summer to qualify, and so far, the group is using only volunteers.

Veterans of such campaigns say that hiring paid circulators is the only way to gather enough signatures to make the ballot. But TRUE Nebraskans officials hint that they’re going to hire some pros after the first of the year.

Stay tuned. Linehan said her Revenue Committee wants to reveal a property tax relief plan by Nov. 21, when state lawmakers hold an annual retreat.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Articles
Vending machines industry plans to increase share of healthy options

There are 5 million vending machines in the United States. They are stocked with Funyuns and Snickers, Cool Ranch Doritos and individually wrapped Duchess honey buns.

We insert our money, press the appropriate buttons and watch as the metal spiral corkscrews our selection forward until we hear the satisfying thunk as it hits the bottom (except, alas, in the case when the Cheez-It bag dangles in limbo). They are in prisons, hospitals, schools, workplaces, apartment buildings, military installations and universities.

And starting Jan. 1, a third of their offerings will be "better for you."

National Automatic Merchandising Association, the trade group representing the $25 billion vending machine industry, announced last week that it has committed to substantially increasing the amount of healthy offerings in the nation's vending machines.

With the support of the Partnership for a Healthier America and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, two nonprofits that work to alleviate obesity in young Americans, NAMA's 1,000 members have agreed to raise the share of healthy options from 24% to 33%.

"This is a very big deal for them," said Nancy Roman, chief executive of the Partnership for a Healthier America. "Vending is the nut that hasn't been cracked, but when you work with a sectorwide group you can move quickly."

Vending machine foods are disproportionately consumed by middle and low-income Americans, Roman says. And machine options are usually shelf-stable foods, leaning heavily toward high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed snacks and sugary beverages.

But Roman says the industry is aware that tastes are changing.

"The entire population would like to eat better food products — truck drivers want a chance to eat better food; millennials and Gen Z are leading the way. It's the vending industry positioning itself for tomorrow's consumers. It will make a meaningful change in the food culture and drive shifts in food production."

NAMA Chief Executive Carla Balakgie sees this next initiative as part of something that started in 2005 when the industry put in place a labeling program to identify "better-for-you" products. NAMA defines "better for you" as a food or beverage that meets at least two of the healthy food standards established by the Partnership for a Healthier America, Center for Science in the Public Interest, American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or USDA's Smart Snacks.

The Partnership for a Healthier America will retain outside auditors to verify vending machine changes, Roman said.

The new healthier options will replace sugar-based beverages with water and nonsugary beverages, and will include apples and bananas, fresh food prepared in USDA-certified kitchens, baked (not fried) chips, string cheese, nuts, dried fruits and sealed sandwiches, according to Josh Rosenberg, the former chief executive of Accent Foods in Pflugerville, Texas.

Accent Foods operates 21,000 vending machines, 1,300 "micro-markets" (unattended convenience stores) and 4,000 pantry services operations. Rosenberg's company moves 750,000 individual food and beverage units each day, in places like the House and Senate, the Smithsonian Institution and Johns Hopkins Healthcare.

Some of this push is the result of innovations in equipment. Shelf-weighted, sensor-based coolers allow customers to walk up and swipe a credit card, opening the cooler, and through sensors and cameras the equipment determines what you bought and charges you accordingly. The operator is sent real-time restocking information electronically without anyone having to be on-site.

"Tech has allowed us to reach beyond our boundaries," Rosenberg said. "This is about investing in new technology, retrofitting existing equipment and product changes in existing equipment."

Vending machines, Balakgie says, are one of the lowest-price parts of the food industry, so it's important to maintain a range of options to avoid pricing out low-income people.

For Rosenberg, this shift is an opportunity to compete with the world's advanced vending machine countries.

"We want to become Japan in unattended retail," he said.