A risky pre-dawn raid by US Special Operations forces that resulted in the death of the Islamic State leader on Thursday was set in motion months ago with a tip that the top terrorist was hiding on the top floor of a house in the northwest. from Syria.
In brief remarks at the White House, President Biden said the decision to send about two dozen helicopter commanders to arrest or kill the leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was made to minimize the risk of civilian damage. Military officials said bomb or missile attacks would have been safer for troops but could have endangered more than a dozen civilians in the house, including several children.
“We chose to launch a Special Forces attack, at a much greater risk than our own people, rather than air strike at him,” Biden said. “We made this choice to minimize the number of civilian casualties.”
Aid workers said Biden approved the raid Tuesday morning after months of military planning, including dozens of rehearsals and a bench-top exercise exercise of the building. On Thursday, he called the operation a warning to all terrorist groups. “This operation is a testament to America’s reach and ability to confront terrorist threats wherever they try to hide in the world,” he said.
Ultimately, Mr Biden said, Mr al-Qurayshi died when the terrorist detonated a bomb that killed him and members of his own family. Rescue workers said women and children were among at least 13 people killed in the attack.
Pentagon officials said 10 civilians, including eight children, had been safely evacuated and commanders would assess whether the mission caused any harm to civilians.
The two-hour raid on the city of Atmeh came days after the end of the largest U.S. combat engagement with the Islamic State since the end of the so-called jihadist caliphate three years ago. US forces supported a Kurdish-led militia in northeast Syria that fought for more than a week to evict Islamic State fighters from a prison they had occupied in the city of Hasaka.
The battle for the prison claimed the lives of hundreds and was a grim reminder that even after the collapse of the Caliphate, the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence remains, counterterrorism specialists said.
The US attack in Atmeh, carried out by about two dozen Army Delta Force commandos, supported by Apache gun helicopters, armed Reaper drones and attack aircraft, resembled the October 2019 raid in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the previous leader of the Islamic State State, died when he detonated a suicide vest when U.S. troops raided a shelter not far from where Thursday’s operation took place.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who has tacitly acknowledged a recent spate of reports of U.S. airstrikes that killed civilians, said the Pentagon would investigate whether the raid had caused civilian casualties. Last week, Mr. Austin ordered the military to step up its efforts to prevent civilian deaths and improve the way it investigates and recognizes claims for civilian damage in U.S. combat operations.
For Mr Biden, the success of the operation was a welcome relief from the looming threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was important for another reason: After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, there was widespread concern that the US evacuation would give ISIS another chance to retake territory. CIA director William J. Burns told Congress that intelligence-gathering efforts on local ISIS operations could suffer.
Speaking in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Mr. Biden was restrained as he described the history of the ISIS leader and said he had ordered a series of atrocities, including against the Yazidi people.
Little is known about the ISIS leader, whose real name is Amir Muhammad Said Abdel-Rahman al-Mawla, or other members of the group’s senior command. But his death was a major blow to the terrorist group, analysts said.
While not nearly as prominent as his predecessor, “Mr. Qurayshi is still highly respected within jihadist circles and is known for being highly intelligent and able to think strategically,” said Colin P. Clarke, counter-terrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultancy.
Indeed, after Mr al-Qurayshi replaced Mr al-Baghdadi, the United States put a bounty of up to $10 million on his head.
Mr Clarke said Mr al-Qurayshi, who was 45 years old and was born in Iraq, had kept a low profile, helping him evade a US-led manhunt, as well as his ability to expand the global network and brand of could have hindered the Islamic State’s expansion. . In March 2019, ISIS lost the last bit of its territory, which once stretched across parts of Syria and Iraq.
According to two senior government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, an unspecified intelligence tip had placed Mr al-Qurayshi in the Atmeh area of Idlib province and then, in early December, more specifically on a stand-alone basis. , three-storey cinder block building surrounded by olive trees.
Images shared on social media by activists who visited the site showed simple rooms with mats on the floor, a diesel stove and clothes and blankets all over, some covered in blood.
US officials said Mr al-Qurayshi and his family lived on the third floor. He only occasionally left the building to bathe on the roof. He relied on a top lieutenant who lived on the second floor of the building and who, along with a network of couriers, carried out his orders to ISIS sites in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere in the world without using electronic devices that Western spies receive signals. intercept — a practice Osama bin Laden used for years.
Top Pentagon officials and military commanders briefed Mr. Biden on their schedule and at one point presented a model of the building where the ISIS leaders and their families lived — noting that a Syrian family with no apparent connection to the terrorist group on the first floor.
Aware of the danger to civilians and commandos, military engineers told Biden they did not believe the entire building would collapse if Mr al-Qurayshi detonated a suicide vest or larger explosives on the third floor. They turned out to be right.
By opting for a ground attack, the commandos could attempt to evacuate civilians safely from the building – something not possible with an airstrike, which could bring the building down. In the end, no Americans were injured.
Shortly after the commandos arrived, warnings in Arabic over megaphones yelled at the residents on the first floor – as well as everyone else – to evacuate. A man, a woman and four children fled the first floor.
Not long after, Mr al-Qurayshi detonated his explosives – much larger than a suicide vest – in a detonation so powerful that bodies, including his own, were blown out the window.
“He killed himself and his immediate family without fighting, even when we tried to demand his surrender and offer him a way to survive,” General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of Central Command, who oversaw on the mission, said Thursday at a virtual security conference sponsored by the Middle East Institute.
After the blast, commandos stormed the building and engaged in a firefight with Mr. al-Qurayshi and his wife, who were barricaded with their children on the second floor. Both were killed, as was one child, but four children were evacuated safely.
US officials said most of the casualties were the result of the explosion on the third floor and fighting on the second floor.
In complex raids, the first version of the events of the army may be incomplete. Reports of previous operations have sometimes been found to be contradictory or wrong, and Mr. Kirby warned that the Pentagon was still collecting information about the attack.
Mr. Biden, along with Vice President Harris, Mr. Austin and General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, monitored the mission from the White House situation room late Wednesday.
At a particularly tense moment in the operation, a US helicopter carrying commandos to the building experienced a mechanical problem: a powertrain failure, Mr. Kirby. It flew to a location far from the target site, where commanders determined it could not be easily repaired, and was destroyed by rigged explosives and US attack aircraft.
At another point near the end of the operation, several gunmen associated with Al Qaeda threateningly approached the house. In a brief firefight, two militants were killed and several others fled, officials said.
Mr Kirby said military forensic experts identified Mr al-Qurayshi using fingerprints and DNA analysis, leaving his remains at the site. Mr Kirby said US forces have not taken any prisoners or civilians into custody. But he indicated that the commandos are collecting materials such as cell phones and computer hard drives – as is common in this type of operation – where analysts will look for clues on how to fight ISIS.
Asked about the timing of the raid, Mr Kirby said multiple factors were involved: intelligence levels, certainty about the location of the ISIS leader, weather and operational conditions (it was a virtually moonless night, ideal for nighttime operations).
“Many factors had to align to be just right,” said Mr. Kirby. “This was the best window to carry out the mission.”
Mr Kirby said the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups will continue. “They’re still a threat,” he said. “Nobody rides a victory lap.”
Reporting contributed by David E. Sanger, Helene Cooper, Julian Barnes and John Ismay.