U.S. Special Forces launched a nighttime raid on the Syria hideout of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, prompting the terrorist to detonate an explosive killing himself and family members, U.S. officials said.
Unlike his predecessor, al-Qurayshi, aka Hajji Abdullah, had avoided the media spotlight, releasing no audio or video messages since being named leader of ISIS four days after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s October 2019 death. ISIS remained operational, though, including its recent attack on Hasakah prison in an effort to break out detained ISIS fighters.
Al-Qurayshi was in Atmeh, a town in northwest Syria close to the Turkish border in Idlib province, where al-Qaeda elements and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) are active. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the raid began at midnight and “a non-Syrian woman blew herself up with explosive belt during the operation,” which last three and a half hours. SOHR said forces surrounded a building with two stories and a basement and “called on the residents in the first and second floor, via loudspeakers, to hand themselves in,” but inhabitants of the building started shooting; these clashes lasted about 90 minutes, the monitor said. SOHR said a member of HTS was killed in the operation in which 13 people were killed, including four children and three women.
There were no U.S. casualties, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said, though “one of our helicopters did suffer a mechanical failure early on in the infiltration phase of the operation.” That helicopter landed a distance from the target site and was destroyed on orders of CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, he added.
Kirby noted that the special forces’ call for people at the site to surrender was a strategy intended to save lives. “The calculated efforts of our forces succeeded in protecting more than 10 women, children and babies,” he said. At least three people, believed to be his wife and two children, were with the terror leader when he “detonated an explosive device, which obviously killed him.”
“The lives of innocents taken in this operation were caused by Abdullah and his decision to blow himself up and everybody else with him on that third floor, as well as the resistance of his lieutenant on the second floor,” Kirby said, who stressed that it was still early after the operation and details were still being gathered and confirmed. “We’re willing to take a look to just examine and make sure that there wasn’t any action that we might have taken that could have also caused harm to innocents indirectly or directly in any way.”
U.S. coalition partners the Syrian Democratic Forces were “helpful” in “enabling our ability to conduct this operation,” but Kirby said “this was a U.S. operation conducted by U.S. forces only.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that “the professionalism, skill and readiness of our troops — honed through relentless rehearsal — has dealt ISIS a severe blow and has helped make our country and our fellow citizens safer.”
“The department takes seriously our commitment to avoid civilian harm in the course of our operations,” Austin added. “This operation was specifically designed and conducted in a manner to minimize civilian casualties. We know that al-Qurayshi and others at his compound directly caused the deaths of women and children last night. But, given the complexity of this mission, we will take a look at the possibility our actions may also have resulted in harm to innocent people.”
“The fight against ISIS continues. Their leader may be gone, but their twisted ideology and their intent to kill, maim and terrorize still threaten our national security and the lives of countless innocents.”
President Biden said the raid was chosen over an airstrike to take out the terror leader in order to minimize civilian casualties but “in a final act of desperate cowardice, he — with no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building, he chose to blow himself up — not just with a vest, but to blow up that third floor rather than face justice for the crimes he has committed, taking several members of his family with him just as his predecessor did.”
“Last night’s operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield,” Biden said during morning remarks in the Roosevelt Room. “And it sent a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you.”
“Our goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS and that fight continues,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, lauding the work of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
“We obviously want to be able to continue to conduct these kinds of operations because ISIS remains a threat,” Kirby said.