Raid targeting ISIS leader arrived after months of planning

A risky pre-dawn raid by US special operations forces that resulted in the death of the Islamic State leader on Thursday was sparked months ago with a tip that the main terrorist was hiding on the top floor of the building. a house in northwestern Syria.

In brief remarks at the White House, President Biden said the decision to send about two dozen helicopter commandos to capture or kill the leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was made to minimize the risk of civilian damage. Military officials said an attack with a bomb or missile would have been safer for the troops but could have endangered more than a dozen civilians in the house, including several children.

“We made the choice to pursue a special forces raid, at a much greater risk than ours – to our own people, rather than target them with an airstrike,” Mr Biden said. “We made this choice to minimize civilian casualties.”

Aides said Mr. Biden approved the raid on Tuesday morning after months of military planning, including dozens of rehearsals and an exercise involving a tabletop model 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 eliminate terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide anywhere 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. Rescuers said women and children were among at least 13 people killed in the assault.

Pentagon officials said 10 civilians, including eight children, had been safely evacuated and commanders would review whether the mission harmed civilians.

The two-hour raid in the town of Atmeh came days after the end of the biggest US involvement in fighting against Islamic State since the end of the jihadists’ so-called caliphate three years ago. US forces backed a Kurdish-led militia in northeastern Syria as it fought for more than a week to drive Islamic State fighters out of a prison they had occupied in the city of Hasaka.

The battle for the prison killed hundreds and served as a stark reminder that even after the collapse of the caliphate, the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence persists, counterterrorism experts said.

The US assault on Atmeh, led by about two dozen Army Delta Force commandos backed by Apache gunship helicopters, armed Reaper drones and attack aircraft, resembled the October 2019 raid during of which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of the Islamic State, died when he detonated a suicide vest as US forces raided a hideout not far from where the operation of Thursday had taken place.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, tacitly acknowledging a recent spate of reports of US airstrikes killing civilians, said the Pentagon would look into whether the raid resulted in civilian casualties. Last week, Austin ordered the military to step up efforts to prevent civilian deaths and improve how it investigates and recognizes allegations of civilian harm in US 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 took control of Afghanistan last year, there were fears that the US evacuation would give ISIS another opportunity 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 of the White House, Mr Biden was understated when he described the story of the Islamic State leader, saying he ordered a series of atrocities, including against the Yazidi people.

Little is known about the Islamic State leader, whose real name is Amir Muhammad Said Abdel-Rahman al-Mawla, or other members of the group’s top command. But his death was a blow to the terror group, analysts said.

While nowhere near as prominent as his predecessor, “Mr. Qurayshi still commands a great deal of respect within jihadist circles and is known to be very intelligent and able to think strategically,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm.

Indeed, after Mr. al-Qurayshi replaced Mr. al-Baghdadi, the United States put a bounty on his head up to $10 million.

Mr Clarke said Mr al-Qurayshi, who was 45 and was born in Iraq, had kept a low profile, which helped him escape an American-led manhunt, but may also have hampered its ability to expand the Islamic State’s global network and brand. . In March 2019, ISIS lost the last piece of its territory, which once stretched across parts of Syria and Iraq.

Credit…through the State Department

According to two senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, unspecified intelligence had placed Mr. al-Qurayshi in the Atmeh region of Idlib province, then , in early December, specifically in a self-contained, three-story cinderblock building surrounded by olive trees.

Images shared on social media by activists who visited the site showed simple rooms with mats on the floor, diesel heating and strewn clothes and blankets, some covered in blood.

US officials said Mr al-Qurayshi and his family lived on the third floor. He only left the building occasionally to bathe on the roof. He relied on a senior lieutenant who lived on the second floor of the building and who, with a network of couriers, carried out his orders to the branches of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere in the world, without using electronic devices whose signals Western spies could intercept. – a practice that Osama bin Laden used for years.

Senior Pentagon officials and military commanders briefed Biden on their planning, at one point showing a model of the building where ISIS leaders and their families lived — and noting that an apparently unrelated Syrian family with the terrorist group lived on the first floor.

Aware of the danger to civilians and commandos, military engineers told Mr Biden they did not believe the entire building would collapse if Mr al-Qurayshi detonated a suicide vest or larger explosives in the third stage. They turned out to be correct.

Opting for a ground raid allowed the commandos to try to safely evacuate civilians from the building – something not possible in an airstrike, which could flatten the building. In the end, no Americans were injured.

Shortly after the commandos arrived, warnings shouted in Arabic over megaphones urged first-floor occupants – and anyone else – to evacuate. A man, a woman and four children fled the first floor.

Shortly after, Mr al-Qurayshi detonated his explosives – much larger than a suicide vest – in a blast so powerful that bodies, including his own, were blown out of the window.

“He killed himself and his immediate family without a fight, even as we tried to call for his surrender and offered him a path to survive,” said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., Chief from Central Command, which oversaw 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’s chief lieutenant and his wife, who were barricaded on the second floor with their children. Both were killed, along with a child, but four children were evacuated to safety.

US officials said most of the casualties resulted from the explosion on the third floor and fighting on the second floor.

In complex raids, the army’s initial version of events may be incomplete. Accounts of past operations have sometimes been found to be contradictory or wrong, and Mr. Kirby warned that the Pentagon was still gathering information about the assault.

Mr. Biden, along with Vice President Harris, Mr. Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, monitored the mission Wednesday night from the White House Situation Room.

At a particularly tense point in the operation, a US helicopter ferrying commandos to the building encountered a mechanical problem – a transmission failure, Mr Kirby said. It flew to a location away from the target site, where commanders determined it could not be repaired easily, and was destroyed by rigged explosives and American attack aircraft.

At another point at the end of the operation, several armed men linked to Al-Qaeda approached the house in a threatening manner. In a brief exchange of fire, 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, and left his remains at the site. Mr Kirby said US troops had not arrested any prisoners or civilians. But he said the commandos collected materials such as cell phones and computer hard drives – as is customary in this type of operation – which analysts will examine for clues to the fight against the virus. Islamic State.

Asked about the timing of the raid, Mr Kirby said several factors played a role: intelligence levels, certainty of the IS leader’s whereabouts, weather and operational conditions (it was a night virtually moonless, ideal for night operations).

“A lot of factors had to line up to be perfect,” Kirby said. “It was the best window to execute the mission.”

Mr Kirby said the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups will continue. “They are still a threat,” he said. “No one is taking a lap of honor.”

The report was provided by David E. Sanger, Helen Cooper, Julian Barnes and Jean Ismay.

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