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Opinion A successful U.S. raid shows the war with ISIS is winnable — but not yet won

This partially redacted image shows the compound of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, leader of the Islamic State, in northwestern Syria on Friday before he killed himself there during a U.S. raid. (AP)
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By all indications, President Biden’s decision to order a Special Operations raid on the northern Syria hideout of the Islamic State’s chief was the right call. Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the subject of a $10 million U.S. bounty, had been active in the Islamic State for years and advocated the enslavement of women from the ethnic Yazidi minority when the terrorist group controlled a swath of Iraqi and Syrian territory. As the hand-picked successor of the group’s previous boss, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mr. Qurayshi was operating undercover in Syria’s rebel-controlled Idlib province, attempting to reconstruct the group with an eye toward once again seizing territory. The world is a better place without him, and the Islamic State, at least temporarily, is a weakened organization.

To those measures of success we would add a third: Apparently, U.S. personnel completed the raid with few civilian casualties. Indeed, it seems that Mr. Qurayshi died at his own hand, detonating a bomb rather than fighting Americans — or surrendering to them — and killing much of his family. Mr. Baghdadi similarly killed himself and others as U.S. troops closed in on him during a raid in 2019. Eyewitness reports confirmed official U.S. reports that civilians were warned to exit the targeted building and that some were escorted to safety by U.S. troops. This would represent a courageous effort to protect innocent life — even at the risk to American lives — and, as such, a welcome change from the disastrous U.S. drone strike on a supposed terrorist in Kabul last August, which killed 10 civilians.

And the Islamic State needs to be weakened. Though still a shadow of the “caliphate” that once seemed on its way to taking Iraq’s capital, Baghdad — before a U.S.-led effort decimated it — the terrorist group just last month staged its largest organized assault in years: an attack on a prison in northern Syria that freed perhaps hundreds of its fighters. Combat lasted 10 days, spilling into the streets of a large Syrian town, Hasakah, until the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. and British air and ground troops, finally prevailed. The SDF reported that 121 of its fighters died, along with 374 suspected members of the Islamic State and four civilians. Meanwhile, the group remains active in Afghanistan, and affiliates have emerged in many parts of Africa, including, most recently, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The raid on Mr. Qurayshi exemplified Mr. Biden’s preferred approach to global terrorist groups: containing them via “over the horizon” strikes and local allied forces rather than through long-term U.S. ground commitments such as the one he terminated in Afghanistan in August. It does not, by itself, vindicate that approach. To the contrary, the defeat of the Islamic State’s dangerous prison assault demonstrated the wisdom of keeping roughly 900 U.S. troops in Syria to support the Kurds, as Mr. Biden has quietly decided to do. The president has his hands full with deterring Russia in Ukraine and the longer-term effort to counter China. Yet, as Mr. Biden’s decision to strike the terrorist leader showed, those goals cannot be pursued at the expense of vigilance against jihadist terrorism.

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