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U.S. commandos raid ISIS leader Quraishi

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about a U.S. Special Forces operation in Northern Syria against ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 3, 2022. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

US commandos practised the helicopter raid over and over in the hopes of apprehending Islamic State’s leader, who was holed up with his family on the third floor of a residential building in a Syrian village near the Turkish border.

The news: Before they could reach him, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi detonated a suicide bomb, causing a massive explosion that threw mangled bodies out of the building and into the streets outside, including his own.

  • President Joe Biden, who was present in the Situation Room during the raid, described Quraishi’s suicide as a “final act of desperate cowardice”. It was reminiscent of his predecessor, Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-detonating a bomb during a US operation in Syria in 2019.
  • The events in Atmeh were horrifying for residents, as U.S. forces stormed in on helicopters before attempting to remove occupants from the cinder-block building, using loudspeakers to order them to leave.
  • “Men, women, and children raise your hands. You are in safety of the American coalition that is surrounding the area. You will die if you don’t get out,” said one woman recounting the U.S. warnings.
  • U.S. troops were able to evacuate six civilians, including four children, from the first floor of the building before the blow broke the top floor apart, according to Marine General Frank McKenzie, who heads U.S. operations in the region and was providing updates to Biden.
  • The explosion, which was more massive than would be expected from a suicide vest, killed everyone on the third floor and in fact ejected multiple people from the building.
  • Quraishi, his wife and two children died.
  • Two of Quraishi’s wives and one child, according to a second U.S. official, were killed.
Interior of a building destroyed in the aftermath of a counter-terrorism mission conducted by the U.S. Special Operations Forces is seen in Atmeh, Syria, February 3, 2022. Mohamed Al-Daher/Handout via REUTERS

What happened: As U.S. troops approached the second storey, one of Quraishi’s lieutenants and his wife opened fire on the Americans, killing one of them. McKenzie said one child was found dead on the second storey, and three other children and a new born were rescued.

  • According to Syrian rescue officials, at least 13 individuals died, the most of whom were women and children.
  • At least two armed members of a local al Qaeda affiliate were killed by gunfire from a U.S. helicopter as they approached the raid site, while U.S. troops were still present, according to the Pentagon.
  • Quraishi’s death was another setback for a group that once ruled a self-proclaimed caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq. Insurgent attacks are now being waged.
  • The operation was planned in early December when officials grew certain that the Islamic State leader was living in the building. On Dec 20, Biden was briefed in detail on options for capturing Quraishi alive, according to a senior White House official.
  • According to one official, the operation was difficult as Quraishi rarely left his third-floor apartment and relied on couriers to communicate with the outside world.
  • According to U.S. authorities, the number of children seen in the area and families believed to be living on the first floor prompted them to try to devise an operation aimed at protecting civilians. This meant risking U.S. Marines in a raid rather than performing a remote strike.

The backlash: Following a high-profile erroneous drone strike in Kabul during the U.S. evacuation of civilians from Afghanistan, which the Pentagon first praised as a success, U.S. military procedures to protect civilians are under examination.

  • The Pentagon said it would analyse all intelligence from the Atmeh raid to verify no civilians were harmed by U.S. soldiers, but that all signs thus far point to civilian deaths being caused by Islamic State terrorists.
Interior of a building destroyed in the aftermath of a counter-terrorism mission conducted by the U.S. Special Operations Forces is seen in Atmeh, Syria, February 3, 2022. Mohamed Al-Daher/Handout via REUTERS

American vantage point: Biden issued final authorization for the mission on Tuesday in an Oval Office meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, who is the highest American military leader as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

  • According to the officials, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other administration officials received real-time reports from Austin, Milley, and McKenzie while watching the operation unfold on multiple screens from the Situation Room.
  • After ending a discussion with French President Emmanuel Macron on an unrelated matter, Biden joined the group in the Situation Room around 5 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to a White House official.
  • According to the Pentagon, a helicopter participated in the raid encountered a mechanical problem at one point and had to be destroyed rather than left behind.
  • Biden said, “God bless our troops” once U.S. forces were wheels up after the operation, and kept tabs on them during the night as they flew to safety, officials said.
  • Biden reminisced on an airstrike carried out in 2015, when he was vice president, that killed another ISIS leader and injured Quraishi, causing him to lose a limb, according to a White House official.
  • When U.S. soldiers inspected Quraishi’s body and confirmed his identity using biometric data collected from a fingerprint during the journey back, Milley told Biden that they won “a visual ID jackpot”. According to the official, they waited until a DNA test was finished before announcing his death.

“He was on our target list from the earliest days of the campaign. He was Baghdadi’s right-hand man, and … was personally responsible for some of the most vicious ISIS atrocities,” the official.

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