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With watchers on the ground and spy drones overhead, U.S. zeroed in on Islamic State leader’s hideout

Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi had only one leg, and that helped officials find him at a house in northwestern Syria

A video image provided by the Defense Department and released on Feb. 3 shows the compound in Syria before it was raided. (AP)

Last fall, a U.S. spy drone moved into position over a house on the edge of an olive grove in northwestern Syria, its camera straining for a glimpse of a bearded man who was said to live inside. The man, who was sometimes called “the professor,” had lost a leg in war and rarely left his third-floor apartment. So the drone fixed its lens on the building’s rooftop terrace and waited.

Other intelligence assets with cameras and remote sensors joined the vigil, above and around the house, and eventually the effort was rewarded. On certain days, weather permitting, the man could be seen hobbling onto the terrace with a mat for his daily prayers. At other times he took along a towel and rinsed off in a rooftop shower. Occasionally he would venture outside for a short walk, or just to stand at the door for some fresh air.

The man’s physical disability stood out. He was missing his right leg. It matched precisely the description of the man who was the subject of the intensive search: Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, leader of the Islamic State.

With additional surveillance, U.S. intelligence analysts confirmed the identity. After a two-year manhunt, the elusive Qurayshi had been spotted, first by informants on the ground, and then that tip was confirmed by the drone’s telescopic lens. For U.S. officials involved in the search, two questions remained. One was how to kill or capture him while minimizing risk to U.S. forces and to the more than a dozen women and children who lived in the same building. The other: whether to strike quickly, or to wait and try to gather more information about Qurayshi’s far-flung network of underground terrorist cells.

The waiting, which ultimately stretched over several months, proved to be worthwhile, according to current and former U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence officials who described details of the operation that ended the career of one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss highly classified material.

“There was foot traffic: couriers and communication between cells,” said a former senior intelligence official briefed on the events. “They milked it, to collect as much data as they could. They had to see who he was talking to.”

Video shows the aftermath of a U.S. military raid in Syria on Feb. 3, which killed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi and at least 13 people. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/AP)

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The death of Qurayshi was announced by President Biden last week, at the conclusion of an operation in which U.S. Delta Force commandos surrounded the militant’s safe house, which U.S. officials say was rigged with a bomb that detonated as they closed in, killing Qurayshi and his family.

This account, pieced together from interviews and briefings with officials from multiple U.S. agencies and one foreign government that provided assistance, offers new insight into the methodical search that led to Qurayshi, as well as the weeks of careful surveillance of the terrorist leader, which occurred at a time when the Islamic State was seeking to rebuild its network after six years of setbacks and defeats.

The picture of Qurayshi that emerged from the surveillance is that of a hands-on commander who was firmly in charge of his organization and harbored ambitions for reestablishing the self-declared Islamist caliphate that once controlled a territory the size of England. His intensive involvement in operational planning made Qurayshi especially dangerous, officials said. But over time, it also made him more vulnerable.

“He was very much in command,” a senior Biden administration official said of Qurayshi, a 45-year-old Iraqi who was born Amir Mohammed al-Mawli al-Salbi. He was known informally as Haji Abdullah, or to his disciples, as Professor Abdullah or simply “the professor,” because of his academic degrees and past role as one of the Islamic State’s official interpreters of sharia, or Islamic law. His lieutenants and couriers were “very active,” the official said, in “making sure that Haji Abdullah’s commands and orders were known.”

Last week’s raid was the culmination of a two-year search that began with Qurayshi’s promotion to leader of the Islamic State. His elevation to “caliph” followed the death of his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who killed himself with a bomb during a similar raid by U.S. commandos in October 2019. Baghdadi’s dramatic end occurred just 15 miles from the three-story cinder-block house in the farming community of Atma, Syria, that became Qurayshi’s headquarters and final residence.

Documents reveal that the building’s second-floor dwelling was rented last March by a man who U.S. officials think was Abu Ahmed al-Halabi, a senior Qurayshi lieutenant. The deputy moved in, and two weeks later, he obtained a lease for the top floor as well. Sometime afterward, Qurayshi took up residence in the modest third-floor apartment with a rooftop view of fields and olive trees.

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To evade his many pursuers, the Islamic State leader adopted rigorous security protocols, U.S. officials said. In addition to banning cellphones and Internet connections, he relied on couriers — human messengers are regarded by the Islamic State as safer than cellphones and others electronic communications. But that arrangement ensured visits by strangers to Atma, a town on the Turkish border that’s far removed, physically and culturally, from the terrorist group’s traditional strongholds in the Euphrates Valley. Many locals view the Islamic State with fear and disdain, and some, officials say, eventually cast a suspicious eye on the mysterious newcomer and his visitors.

The officials said Qurayshi — distinctive because of the leg, which CIA analysts think was amputated after injuries suffered in a 2015 airstrike — was sometimes spotted outside the house, or when taking brief strolls through the olive trees. Word eventually made its way to informants who work for the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mainly Kurdish militia group closely allied to the United States, current and former U.S. officials said. Intensive surveillance began immediately afterward, with Kurdish watchers following the arrivals and departures of armed men who trudged upstairs to meet with Qurayshi.

The surveillance was expanded to include some of the U.S. government’s most sophisticated remote cameras and sensors, most of them on drones operated by the Defense Department, the officials said. Over the following weeks, CIA “targeters” — analysts who sift through raw intelligence to piece together leads about terrorism suspects — devoted hundreds of work hours to the case, adding to efforts by other intelligence and defense analysts who kept watch over the house and neighborhood.

“We worked extensively with the intelligence community to develop a deep understanding of the people located at the building, and the pattern of life of all the occupants that were there,” a senior military official said at a briefing on Thursday.

The effort eventually not only confirmed Qurayshi’s identity, officials said, but also touched off an agonizing debate over tactics: whether to launch a “standoff” airstrike that risked killing innocents, or to send U.S. commandos into a turbulent region of Syria controlled by a patchwork of armed groups that includes militants linked to al-Qaeda.

By late September. U.S. Special Forces teams had begun training for a raid on the house, which military planners thought was almost certain to feature booby traps designed to stop assailants. Those preparations entailed regular rehearsals with models, including a full-scale mock-up of the dwelling, two senior military officials closely involved with the operation said.

An airstrike against the house was considered but quickly ruled out, senior military officials said.

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“There were too many noncombatants,” including a family with children living on the first floor, a military official said.

The alternative, a long-range helicopter raid using commandos, was a “more risky proposition to U.S. forces,” the official added, “but the goal of the mission was to capture the leader of ISIS, gather what intelligence we could, and of course avoid any unnecessary civilian harm.”

On Dec. 20, the president met with his national security team to formally approve the operation against Qurayshi, officials said. The president asked about civilian casualties and whether the house might collapse if the terrorist leader detonated a bomb, potentially killing the families below. Military engineers studied the structure and concluded that it would not.

There appeared to be no cause for urgency in carrying out the raid, several officials said. In addition to the need for planning and training, there were practical considerations, such as weather and the lunar phase, a moonless night being the preferred choice for commando operations. In the meantime, constant monitoring allowed intelligence officials to expand their knowledge of Qurayshi’s underground network, which included dozens of cells scattered across Syria and Iraq.

Because of the intensity of the surveillance, U.S. officials were confident that they could “detect any attempt to leave” the house, the former senior intelligence official said. Such an attempt would in any case provide an opportunity for an airstrike away from the structure and its civilian occupants. The intervening weeks produced a trove of intelligence, the official said, as couriers were tracked and subsequently monitored as they met with contacts in other parts of Iraq and Syria. The flow of messengers to the house in Atma increased further after last month’s massive assault by Islamic State militants on a prison in al-Hasakah, in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. U.S. officials said Qurayshi was heavily involved in planning for the attack on the prison.

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“This guy was working it,” the former senior intelligence official said of Qurayshi, who oversaw the group as it carried out a steady stream of assassinations and bombings across Syria and Iraq. “You saw a guy with blood on his hands.”

By Feb. 1, military planners decided that conditions for a commando raid were nearly perfect. At an Oval Office meeting Biden was briefed on the final plans, and gave his approval. The next day — Feb. 2, at 5 p.m. Washington time, the president was called into the White House Situation Room to monitor the raid through a video connection to the Pentagon.

“It was very quiet and very tense,” a senior administration official said, recalling the mood in the room. “There was not a lot of talking.”

Contributing to the stress, officials said, was the knowledge that U.S. forces would be operating in hostile territory dominated by extremist groups. The commandos also were traveling into and out of airspace controlled by the Russian military. A decision was made to refrain from alerting Moscow ahead of time, and to rely instead on a deconfliction channel to defuse any problems.

By 1 a.m. local time on Feb. 3 — 6 p.m. Feb. 2 in Washington — helicopters carrying two dozen members of the elite force were hovering over the house in Atma. As the Delta team prepared to descend on ropes, Apache helicopter gunships, fighter jets and armed Reaper drones prowled the skies to watch for trouble.

The thrum of helicopter rotors woke neighbors, and people spilled out of their houses to see what was happening. Some described hearing a voice shouting Arabic commands over a loudspeaker.

“Whoever wants to preserve his soul, come out,” the voice said.

Men in body armor emerged from one of the helicopters and scurried down ropes onto the ground below. Using a bullhorn to announce themselves, they rounded up the family on the first floor — a man, a woman and several children — and led them away.

Qurayshi would neither surrender nor allow his family to escape. According to official accounts, buttressed by witnesses and analysts who reviewed photographs of the building’s interior, Qurayshi or his associates had rigged the dwelling with explosives to ensure that he could not be taken alive. It remains unclear who detonated the bomb. Military officials said they think it’s likely he did, but that they haven’t ruled out the possibility it was someone else — perhaps one of his wives. The blast was later judged to be far more powerful that the suicide vest that Baghdadi used to kill himself three years earlier.

The family on the ground floor had just left when an explosion lit up the sky, with a boom that could be heard miles away. The force of the blast blew out several walls and hurled bodies and body parts onto the ground, three floors below.

A pause followed. Wary about the possibility of additional booby traps, the Delta team sent “other capabilities” — presumably a robot probe or small drone — to scan the remains of the apartment, military officials said.

As they searched, the commandos came under fire by Qurayshi’s lieutenant on the second floor, and then by the lieutenant’s wife. Both of them were killed in an exchange of gunfire, and several children on the floor were removed by American troops and turned over to another family nearby, officials said.

Two hours after the start of the mission, it was over. As some members of the Delta team scooped up papers and other potentially valuable intelligence from inside the house, others took fingerprints from Qurayshi’s remains and bagged a biological sample for DNA testing. The body was left there, amid the rubble of the house on the edge of the olive grove.

Just before 7 a.m. Washington time — roughly 12 hours after the raid ended, the tests were completed, and the identity of the Islamic State leader was confirmed. White House officials prepared a formal announcement, which Biden would deliver on live television.

“This horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul, Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, and Dalton Bennett, Joyce Lee and Elyse Samuels in Washington contributed to this report.