This story has been updated with additional comment from the Pentagon.
The leader of ISIS died early Thursday morning in Idlib, Syria, during a raid by U.S. special forces, President Joe Biden said.
The months-in-the-planning operation targeted ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who detonated a suicide vest during the raid on a three-story house, killing himself, his wife, and two of his children, Biden and U.S. officials said.
The Pentagon claimed only three civilians were killed in the operation. A senior lieutenant of al-Qurayshi’s and his wife were also killed in the operation, and another child was killed in a gunfight, the Pentagon said.
No U.S. forces were killed.
Local first responders said the raid killed as many as 13 people, including women and children, along with the terror group’s leader. U.S. officials said they identified his body by fingerprints and DNA.
No one was taken into U.S. custody.
The Pentagon said ISIS remains a threat to national security but they are leaderless and significantly weakened.
The operation was carried out near the same al Qaeda–controlled section of Idlib in northwestern Syria where a very similar U.S. special ops raid targeted and killed Qurayshi’s predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019.
Sources with the White Helmets, a local group of emergency first responders, told VICE World News that the raid began at about 1 a.m. local time with the approach of helicopters and other U.S. planes as a two-story family home located about a mile from the border with Turkey was targeted.
After several hours of intense gunfights and airstrikes around the area, the first responders were able to access the scene, which contained a destroyed home, a crashed and destroyed U.S. helicopter, and at least 13 dead women and children.
“They took the bodies of the men,” said the local responder by WhatsApp, who said the death toll of 13 could increase as the scene is cleaned. “There were many dead women and children in one section [of the home]; it was either hit with an [American] bomb or maybe a woman used a [suicide vest]. We aren’t sure.”
“We made a choice to pursue a special forces raid at a much greater risk than to our own people, rather than targeting him with an air strike,” said Biden at a press conference on Thursday morning. “We made this choice to minimise civilian casualties. Our team is still compiling the report, but we do know that as our troops approached to capture the terrorist (in) a final act of desperate cowardice, he with no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building, he chose to blow himself up... just as his predecessor did.”
Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, 46, who took the name Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as leader of ISIS, had a $10 million bounty on his head for his death or capture. It’s unclear if the bounty will be paid.
He was wanted for his role commanding ISIS and his command of forces that committed war crimes and genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi population in 2014.
Top ISIS officials and their families often carry, or even sleep wearing, explosive vests for use if cornered by enemies – Baghdadi killed himself with one, wounding a dog, in order to avoid capture by U.S. forces in 2019.
It would not be unusual for the wife of an ISIS commander to also use such a weapon, a former jihadi fighter told VICE World News.
“[Al Qaeda] guys wouldn’t let their wives do such a thing, but [ISIS] —they all wear them, and so do their families,” said the fighter, a man from Tal Rifat, Syria, who used the nickname Abu Marwan. “Qurayshi and his wives would have planned for their family to die if the Americans raided them.”
An Iraqi from Tel Afar, Qurayshi had close ties to both jihadists and the security services of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, leveraging those ties into a prominent role in the group that he led from 2019 onward.
Handpicked by Baghdadi in early 2019 as a replacement, Qurayshi was a controversial figure within the group for his hard-line views on Islamic law, which he studied for a Ph.D. in Mosul. Frequently cited as the author of the religious ruling eventually accepted by Baghdadi to allow the enslavement of Yazidi women, Qurayshi was thought to have focused primarily on religious affairs and rebuilding the group, leaving military commanders to plan operations independently in a cellular structure adopted by the group after the fall of its physical caliphate.
Although it was long rumoured that Qurayshi was an ethnic Turkman - not an Arab and thus ineligible to be caliph - Iraqi intelligence eventually concluded that his family was properly Arab. They concluded the rumour was the result of a combination of his family being from Tel Afar, a heavily Turkmen area, and rivals interested in diminishing his influence within the group. But beyond his religious education, which was verified by Iraqi public records, and his early support for Ansar al Islam, an ISIS precursor formed in northern Iraq while Saddam was still in power, very little is known about his long jihadist career.
ISIS has conducted terror attacks across Europe and the Middle East, while also supporting or opening branches in parts of Africa, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with varying degrees of success.
The Iraqi-dominated jihadist group formed in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion that broke from al Qaeda and took over much of Iraq and Syria from 2013 to 2014 before declaring an Islamic Caliphate. But the group’s power base among the Sunni tribes of western and northern Iraq give it extreme potency even after an allied coalition of Western nations, Iraq and Kurds re-took major cities including Mosul in Iraq and Syria’s Raqqa in a years-long offensive from 2015 to 2019.
Last week, ISIS members attempted to free thousands of comrades detained by Kurdish forces in Syria during those operations, clearly planning to bolster their diminished ranks by freeing imprisoned colleagues.
“They have to break their guys out to regroup,” said Abu Marwan. “The guys in jail are trained fighters but also their cousins, brothers, family members. Some know where weapons are hidden, others know where there is money. [Daesh] will not stop trying to break them out, and when they do, it will all start again.”
But the death of Qurayshi might prove of limited value to ISIS opponents, added the ex-jihadist, who fought alongside an earlier version of the group.
“Bad for Qurayshi and his kids but [Daesh] leaders know they will be killed,” he said. “These men are sociopaths, they don’t care about this, they arrange for new leaders before they die, and nobody knows everything so killing one Daesh leader won’t matter to the group.”
A NATO military official said the operation was conducted by a squadron of about 50 people, a “special mission unit” under the command of the Joint Special Operations (JSOC) command. In typical parlance for Syria, this means operators from the 1st Special Operations Detachment-Delta, the same unit that killed Baghdadi.
The official said that initial briefings on the operation said it was a planned operation using both signal intelligence and even human sources on the ground long in advance of the actual mission, making it unlikely to have been an immediate response to last week’s jail-break operation. The operation was so secret that allies were not formally notified or briefed until after its completion.
“I believe [the unit] came in from the states just for this operation; there’s always operators around helping the Kurds, and maybe that's how the intelligence was first collected,” said the official, who refused any description of them or their work. “But it seems these guys came in for this specific mission. That’s usually a sign of extensive planning.”