U.S. troops carried out a dramatic raid in northwest Syria that led the Islamic State’s top leader to kill himself and his family as American forces closed in, President Biden said Thursday, capping months of secretive planning for an assault designed to minimize the risk to innocent bystanders.
“Last night’s operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield, and it sent a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you,” Biden said, noting that no Americans were killed in the operation.
Qurayshi took control of the Islamic State after his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself in a similar U.S. raid in northwest Syria in 2019. Although the militant organization’s reach has diminished since it seized major cities there and in Iraq in 2014, U.S. officials said Qurayshi was planning a comeback, citing last month’s bloody, multiday siege on Syria’s Hasakah prison, where hundreds of ISIS fighters have been detained. He also oversaw some of the militants’ most horrific activities, including its genocide of the Yazidi minority sect in Iraq in 2014 — during which rape was wielded as a weapon of terror.
Biden approved the nighttime raid at a tenuous moment for his national security team, which is working with NATO allies in Europe to try to avert a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine while facing continued political fallout at home over last summer’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. An offshoot of the terrorist group, known as Islamic State-Khorasan, killed 13 American troops and nearly 200 civilians in a suicide bombing at Kabul’s international airport in what would become a defining moment in the U.S. evacuation. Republican lawmakers cite the attack as evidence that Biden has failed to articulate an effective strategy for thwarting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
On Thursday, U.S. troops arrived by helicopter in the town of Atma, in Syria’s Idlib province, using a bullhorn to call out to those inside, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. A man, a woman and four children, all located on the compound’s first floor and identified by U.S. officials as noncombatants, emerged unharmed before the explosion, Kirby said. In all, he said, 10 civilians — including eight children — were evacuated.
The force of the blast throttled the surrounding area, said Ahmed, a local resident who spoke on the condition that he be identified by only his first name because of safety concerns. He recalled hearing the heavy thud of helicopter rotors as he was preparing to go to sleep about 1 a.m.
The sound was well recognized in the area, Ahmed said, noting that helicopters often arrived to switch out a contingent of Turkish troops who are stationed nearby. But this was different.
“The sound was horrible,” he said. He climbed to the roof of his building and saw machine-gun fire coming from one of the helicopters. The commotion did not subside until around 4 a.m., he said.
Senior administration officials, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules established by the White House, said the operation lasted about two hours and unfolded in similar fashion to their rehearsals. Citing lessons learned from the Baghdadi raid in 2019, military officials said they had assumed it was possible Qurayshi would trigger explosives if approached.
It was not the first time that the United States had targeted Qurayshi. He lost a leg after being wounded in a 2015 airstrike in Mosul, Iraq, an administration official said. The United States had put out a bounty on Qurayshi worth up to $10 million, but it was unclear whether the reward “can or will be claimed,” Kirby said.
After the explosion, U.S. troops entered the building and exchanged gunfire on the second floor with one of Qurayshi’s lieutenants and the lieutenant’s wife, Kirby said. Both were killed, and four children who had been in that part of the building escaped without injury, he said.
Another child died on the second floor, Kirby said. While there are “strong indications” that civilians in the building died because of the explosion and “resistance” by Qurayshi’s lieutenant on the second floor, “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,” he said. At least three civilians died in the raid, Kirby said.
U.S. officials said the decision to target Qurayshi using a raid force, rather than an airstrike, was made with hopes that a more surgical approach would reduce the likelihood that civilians would be harmed in a residential neighborhood. The operation required the United States to fly through Russian-controlled airspace inside Syria and deconflict with the Russian military, an administration official said. Moscow has operated in Syria for years, backing the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who oversaw the operation as chief of U.S. Central Command, said that while the second floor was being cleared, a separate group of armed men in the area moved on the Americans. At least two of the fighters were killed after a U.S. helicopter opened fire on them, the general said.m
The mission called for taking Qurayshi alive if possible, McKenzie said.
Qurayshi’s remains were found by U.S. troops on the ground outside the building, McKenzie said. He had been thrown by the force of the blast from the third floor. He was identified by his fingerprints on-site, and subsequently by DNA analysis, Kirby said. No one was taken into custody, he added. An administration official said the DNA test results became available about 7 a.m. in Washington. Biden’s initial announcement of the operation followed soon after.
The remains of other family members also were ejected from the building, said a U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
The official said that the Americans — numbering about two dozen — seized cellphones and computer hard drives from the site, materials that could facilitate future counterterrorism operations, and were backed by helicopter gunships, attack planes and Reaper drones that provided surveillance from above. A senior White House official, Brett McGurk, told MSNBC on Thursday that U.S. troops had seized “a lot of information” during the raid.
A U.S. helicopter suffered a mechanical breakdown during the operation and was flown a short distance away to an open field. McKenzie said U.S. troops destroyed it, including with weapons from other aircraft, to ensure that no sensitive material would remain in Syria.
In northern Idlib, residents spent a sleepless night swapping rumors about who the raid had targeted. The province has been a bastion of opposition to Assad for more than a decade, and is home to millions of internally displaced people from other parts of the country. It is largely under the control of an Islamist militant group that was formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and other Western powers.
An official with the White Helmets, a first-responder group, said they were delayed in responding to the explosion because of the subsequent fighting, and that when they arrived there was “blood everywhere.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the group’s behalf.
Videos circulating on social media, which The Washington Post was unable to immediately verify, captured what appeared to be the raid and its aftermath. In one widely circulated clip, the sound of heavy gunfire can be heard and what appears to be muzzle flashes appear above the skyline.
Other videos captured the sound of a loud warning being issued in Arabic, instructing children in the house to come out.
“The area is surrounded by land and air,” the warning said. “The children are without blame. If there are children, they should come to me.”
Mahmoud al-Sheikh, who works at an auto repair shop less than a mile from the house, said he did not know who lived there but often used to see “small children and women coming in and out.” There was nothing terribly extraordinary about the men in the house, he added, saying they did not outwardly match the description of hard-line Islamist fighters who often wore long beards.
Biden administration officials said that Qurayshi did not leave the building aside from occasionally going to the roof, relying on his lieutenant and couriers for help. The family on the first floor was “unwitting” and did not appear to know who lived upstairs, they said.
The United States became aware of Qurayshi’s location late last year, and Biden was first presented with options in the White House Situation Room on Dec. 20, administration officials said. The commanders who briefed the president, including McKenzie, brought with them a tabletop model of the building.
In following weeks, U.S. Special Operations troops ran numerous rehearsals of the operation, Kirby said. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Biden in the Oval Office and discussed the operation again, and the commander in chief approved them to move forward.
In Washington, reaction to the raid largely broke along partisan lines. Republicans praised U.S. troops who carried it out, while Democrats credited both the military and Biden’s leadership.
Sen. Jack Reed (D.-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted in a statement that Biden ordered the raid that was “carried out by brave U.S. forces,” and that it “dealt a significant blow to ISIS.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said that “wiping a deadly terrorist off the face of the planet” was welcome news, made possible by the fearless and exceptional work of the United States Special Operations Forces.” But, she cautioned, the Biden administration “must present a clear and complete strategy” to counter extremist organizations, she added, stopping short of crediting the president for approving Thursday’s raid.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Qurayshi raid was “not a substitute for an effective comprehensive counterterrorism plan or for holding ISIS-K accountable” for the August bombing at Kabul’s airport.
Austin, the defense secretary, credited U.S. troops with meticulous planning, and warned that the campaign against the Islamic State is not over.
“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,” Austin said.
Fahim reported from Istanbul and Dadouch reported from Beirut. Karoun Demirjian, Matt Viser, John Wagner, Felicia Sonmez, Amy B Wang and Eugene Scott in Washington contributed to this report.