President Biden watched in real time on Wednesday as US commandos landed in Syria to raid a three-story house surrounded by olive trees, where the top ISIS leader lived with his wife and members of his family, according to government officials.
From the head of the Situation Room table, Biden watched anxiously as a US helicopter had mechanical problems on the ground.
There was relief in the room as children emerged from the first floor of the building and made it to safety.
Moments later, an explosion shook the site: a suicide blast that killed the terrorist, his wife and his children, blowing their bodies outside the building and onto the surrounding land.
Senior government officials detailed the raid on Thursday morning, describing an operation months in the making.
“We think the impact of (Al-Quarayshi) will be a blow to ISIS,” said a senior government official, who said the terrorist was “heavily involved in directing many of the operations.” Officials said he oversaw ISIS branches abroad — including those in Afghanistan responsible for the deaths of US Marines last year — and played a key role in the genocide of the Yazidi ethnic minority.
At some point in December, top Pentagon officials brought a tabletop model of the site to the Situation Room to guide the president through their plans.
The target, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, has never left his premises. He lived with his family on the third floor and only occasionally appeared to bathe on the roof. On the first floor, families with no connection to ISIS, apparently with no knowledge of the terrorist, lived two floors above them.
It had been months since the US learned that the leader of ISIS lived there and directed his terror operation through a network of couriers. When briefed by operations commanders in December, Biden ordered the Pentagon to take precautions to minimize civilian casualties — a difficult proposition for a target that seemed to deliberately surround itself with children and families for protection.
US troops conducting the mission rehearsed the operation, including safeguards to protect innocents. When the US team landed, they loudly announced their presence and asked people in the building to leave and others in the surrounding residential area to stay away.
Biden gave final approval to the operation on Tuesday in the Oval Office, where he was briefed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A day later, there was “enormous tension” in the Situation Room as the President, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of Biden’s military and national security teams monitored the situation in “real time”.
Biden was “very steeped in the operational details” after months of planning, a senior government official said, including the model of the building housing the top ISIS leader, which was brought into the Situation Room by military leaders in December. He engaged in a “constant give and take” with his military commanders.
Read more about how the events unfolded here.