The daring raid by US special operations forces in Syria before dawn, which resulted in the death of the Islamic State leader, gave a vivid reminder that no matter how much the world may wish to move forward, the chaos in Syria continues to resonate.
The sudden roar of American Apache attack helicopters in a pastoral area in northwestern Syria on Thursday gave way to a firefight inside a three-story building surrounded by olive trees. The raid resulted in the target, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the largely unknown leader of Islamic State or ISIS since 2019. U.S. officials said he blew himself up and killed 12 others when the commandos closed in. .
Mr. al-Qurayshi’s death comes days after US forces backed a Kurdish-led militia in a bloody, week-long battle to oust ISIS fighters from a prison in northeastern Syria, the largest U.S. combat attack on Islamic State since the end of the jihadists’ it so-called caliphate three years ago. That and the raid on Mr al-Qurayshi have highlighted that the United States still cannot completely free itself from military engagement in Syria and that its more than two decades of global fight against terrorist groups is far from over.
Here are five takeaways from the raid:
The United States’ fight against terrorism continues, with no end in sight.
Years of military action by the United States and its international partners to eradicate terrorism have required heavy tolls, first against Al Qaeda and then against Islamic State, which rose from the turmoil of the Iraq war and the collapse of the Syrian state. But even though countless warriors have been killed and leaders eliminated, both groups have adapted to more diffuse organizations capable of finding new havens from which to launch opportunistic violence.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan this summer, facilitated by the withdrawal of the US military, is once again drawing international attention to the prospect of terrorists regaining the country as a refuge. In Iraq, Islamic State recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer at an army post and beheaded a police officer for the camera. In Syria, it has murdered dozens of local leaders and blackmailed companies to fund its operations.
In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of US forces in August left the local Islamic State federation fighting the Taliban, with often catastrophic consequences for civilians trapped in the center.
“Recent attacks by ISIS,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon senior and retired CIA paramilitary operations officer, “suggest that ISIS is not done fighting, and neither are the United States and our partners.”
As the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign unfolds, command operations remain rare.
U.S. efforts to combat terrorism around the world in recent years have largely been defined by airstrikes and drone warfare, which have also required a huge – and largely unknown – toll on civilians.
The raid on Mr al-Qurayshi was a reminder that the US military retains the ability to carry out targeted command operations, but they involve risks.
The operation, carried out by about two dozen helicopter-carrying special operations troops in northwestern Syria – planned for months, executed on a moonless night and watched on video screens from the White House situation room – bore striking similarities to the U.S. raids that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and the former Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the same part of Syria in 2019.
However, due to the extensive planning and risks for troops they entail, such raids are reserved for the main targets.
U.S. officials said they made sure to avoid civilian casualties and evacuated 10 children from the building during the raid. This explosion appears to have been responsible for at least some of the 13 deaths during the operation, officials said.
But in complex raids, the military’s initial version of events may be incomplete. Reports of past operations have at times been found to be contradictory or incorrect, and the Pentagon said it was still gathering information from the raid.
Chaos in Syria offers jihadists a refuge.
President Bashar al-Assad has held on to power despite a decade-long civil war, but the Syrian state is a mess, with pockets of land beyond his control and an illegal drug empire flourishing in government-controlled areas. A study by the New York Times last year showed that Syrian elites with ties to Mr al-Assad are behind a multi-billion dollar industry that trades in illegal amphetamine, which has become the country’s most valuable export product, far exceeding its legal products.
The raid on Thursday took place in the Atmeh area, a rural dead-water and smuggling town in the northwest that has grown in population during the war. As tens of thousands of Syrians were displaced, huge camps erupted, and analysts say jihadists have often hidden among civilians struggling to survive.
Atmeh is in Idlib province, which is still home to many violent extremist groups, dominated by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, the former Nusra front formerly linked to Al Qaeda.
Another security vacuum exists in northeastern Syria, where jihadists have taken refuge by evading Kurdish-led militias backed by the United States near the border with Turkey and in the desert that spans the border with Iraq.
Days before the raid, US forces supported a Kurdish-led militia in the city of Hasaka as it struggled for more than a week to expel Islamic State fighters from a prison they had occupied. The battle killed hundreds of people and offered a reminder of the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence.
It was a victory for Biden in the midst of other crises abroad.
As he confronts Russia over its military build-up on the border with Ukraine and faces deeper rivalry with China – as well as domestic challenges, including rising inflation and an irreconcilable Republican opposition in Congress – President Biden secured a political victory with the mission in Syria. It eliminated one of the world’s most wanted terrorist leaders without losing American lives, according to U.S. officials.
After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, critics of Mr. Biden that his military withdrawal from the country would hamper intelligence gathering against terrorist networks. The pursuit of Mr al-Qurayshi, which intelligence officials had been pursuing since last year, provided evidence that the United States retained the ability to track down jihadist leaders in Syria.
White House aides said Pentagon senior officials and military leaders informed Mr. Biden of their plans, and at one point presented a tabletop model of the building where the Islamic State leader and his family lived – noting that a Syrian family with no apparent connection to the terrorist group lived on the first floor.
Given the high risk of damage to civilians and commandos, military engineers told Mr Biden they did not believe the entire building would collapse if Mr al-Qurayshi detonated a suicide vest or other explosives on the third floor, according to a report from two officials in the Biden administration.
Eventually, Mr Biden said, Mr al-Qurayshi died when he detonated a bomb that killed him as well as members of his own family.
Sir. al-Qurayshi’s death gives Mr. Biden, like his predecessors in the Oval Office, the opportunity to claim the credit for eliminating a jihadist leader whose group is responsible for numerous civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq, and for deadly terrorist attacks around the world.
ISIS will probably survive, even without a unifying leader.
At the height of its powers around 2015, Islamic State controlled a part of Syria and Iraq that was roughly the size of Britain. It lured crowds of foreign fighters from as far away as China and Australia and ran a sophisticated propaganda machine that inspired or directed foreign attacks from Berlin to San Bernardino, California. By December 2017, after an ongoing U.S.-led military campaign, it had lost 95 percent of its territory.
The struggle continued as a US-led coalition joined forces with local forces in Syria and Iraq to roll back the group’s progress. A Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with US military support, pushed it from its last area of territory in northeastern Syria in early 2019. In October of that year, the leader of the American raid group, Mr al-Baghdadi, was killed.
After Mr. al-Qurayshi replaced Mr. al-Baghdadi, the United States put a bounty of up to $ 10 million on his head. Mr. al-Qurayshi kept a low profile to avoid capture, which analysts said prevented him from expanding the group’s reach. But the group has evolved to the point that one man’s death does not mean it is no longer a threat.
“I do not think anyone should be under the illusion that removing him from the organization is a death knell for Islamic State,” said Daniel Milton, research director at the West Point Combating Terrorism Center. “This will hopefully hamper the organization, but I do not think it will eliminate the threat in the future.”