The shadowy leader of the Islamic State terrorist group killed himself and his family members “in a final act of desperate cowardice” by detonating explosives as U.S. Special Forces approached his hideout in Syria, President Biden and U.S. officials said Thursday.
Hours after watching a live feed of the mission with Vice President Kamala Harris and top aides from the White House Situation Room, Mr. Biden gave a brief televised address. He said the strike against ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in the small town of Atmeh, near the Turkish border, would send a message to other terrorist groups that seek to challenge the U.S. and its allies.
“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,” Mr. Biden said.
The administration acknowledged that the death of one terrorist leader did not put the threat to bed and that even the Islamic State group has managed to regenerate itself after two other leaders were taken out. The most recent was by a Trump administration strike against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who killed himself in a similar manner during a U.S. raid in 2019.
“They are still a threat. Nobody is taking a victory lap here,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday.
The mysterious, low-profile al-Qurayshi, believed to be 45, has been the leader of ISIS since October 2019. He was killed just days after the group staged a spectacular attempt to free hundreds of its hardened operatives in a Syria detention site run by pro-U.S. Kurds. It was the most ambitious operation in years by the terrorist group, which lost nearly all of the vast territory it once ruled on the Iraqi-Syria border.
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“He was very much involved in trying to resuscitate the group,” Mr. Kirby said. “This is a man we should all be happy is no longer walking on the face of the Earth.”
Planned for months
Thursday’s raid had been in the planning stages for months, Mr. Biden and military officials said. In December, military officials carried out a tabletop exercise with a model of the structure. That exercise included engineering projections to determine whether the building could withstand the detonation of explosives. Officials expected al-Qurayshi to take his own life rather than be killed or captured by U.S. forces.
No U.S. troops were hurt, but one disabled military helicopter had to be abandoned and destroyed.
The raid, Mr. Biden said, “took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield and a sent a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you.”
The president said al-Qurayshi was responsible for the brutal jailbreak operation that was quelled last week and was “the driving force” behind the slaughter in 2014 of ethnic Yazidis in northern Iraq.
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It’s unclear exactly how many people died at the site or how many people may have been living with al-Qurayshi on the third floor of the building. Officials disputed reports from the scene that 13 people were killed, though they acknowledged additional deaths.
“All the casualties at the site were due specifically to their actions,” a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call, referring to al-Qurayshi and Islamic State deputies living in the three-story building.
An innocent family was living on the first floor, officials said. At least eight children were safely removed from the building before the blast, officials said, after U.S. Special Forces sent out warning calls and urged residents to flee.
Pentagon officials said the terrorist leader detonated the explosive device in the early stages of the raid, which lasted about two hours. His wife and children were also killed in the blast, which was so powerful that it flung bodies outside the house.
The Associated Press reported that blood was seen on the walls of the structure after the blast and that a bedroom that was partially destroyed contained a wooden crib.
“The first moments were terrifying. No one knew what was happening,” Jamil el-Deddo, a resident of a nearby refugee camp, told an AP reporter on the scene. “We were worried it could be Syrian aircraft, which brought back memories of barrel bombs that used to be dropped” by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad during the country’s decade-long civil war.
Al-Qurayshi never left the compound, officials said, leaving U.S. military planners with few options other than a direct assault on the site. Because of the number of women and children living in the building, officials said, Mr. Biden decided against an airstrike and in favor of a Special Forces ground operation.
“It was an explicit decision to conduct a raid as opposed to a standoff strike,” an administration official told reporters. “We were conscious of the fact that this is a residential area and there were children in the building.”
The operation was under the direction of U.S. Central Command. Military officials identified al-Qurayshi’s body through fingerprints and DNA analysis. Near the end of the operation, extremist fighters attacked American personnel, officials said.
“They were appropriately deemed as hostile, and they were engaged. Two of them were killed,” Mr. Kirby said.
Despite bringing down a terrorist with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, the raid drew mixed reactions on Capitol Hill.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it’s always a better day with one less terrorist in the world. Still, he faulted the administration for what he said was a lack of a coherent approach to counterterrorism policy more generally. He said the raid raised new questions about the Pentagon’s assurances that it could deal with post-Afghanistan threats from jihadi terrorist groups such as ISIS without putting troops on the ground in vulnerable areas.
“In fact, it raises questions about the Biden administration’s counterterrorism strategy,” Mr. Inhofe said in a statement. “For many months, the administration has insisted that it can effectively counter terrorists through ‘over-the-horizon’ operations.”
Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, reserved most of his praise for the troops involved but gave some credit to leadership within the Biden administration.
“This successful operation does not mark the end of the ISIS threat or the counterterrorism challenge,” Mr. Smith said. “The United States must remain vigilant in the face of such threats.”
Mr. Kirby said the timing of the nighttime mission, which involved about 50 U.S. troops backed by helicopter gunships, Reaper drones and air cover, was determined by several factors, including intelligence on al-Qurayshi’s whereabouts and clear weather on a moonless night in the town where the raid was staged.
“A lot of factors had to line up to be just right,” Mr. Kirby said. “This was the best window to execute the mission.”
• Tom Howell Jr. and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.