5 Takeaways From U.S. Raid That Killed the Islamic State’s Leader. Will Qurayshi's Death Have Any Impact on The Terror Group's Expansion in Africa?

    A daring raid by U.S. Special Operations forces that resulted in the death of the ISIS leader offered a vivid reminder that the chaos in Syria continues to reverberate.

    The house in Atmeh, Syria, in which Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the Islamic State, was living.
    Credit...Aaref Watad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    By Shashank Bengali and Marc SantoraFeb. 4, 2022Updated 8:31 p.m. ET

    The daring pre-dawn raid by U.S. Special Operations forces in Syria that resulted in the death of the Islamic State’s leader offered a vivid reminder that no matter how much the world might want to move on, the chaos in Syria continues to reverberate.

    The sudden roar of American Apache attack helicopters in a pastoral patch of northwestern Syria gave way on Thursday to a firefight inside a three-story building surrounded by olive trees. The raid resulted in the death of the target, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the largely unknown leader of the Islamic State, or ISIS, since 2019. U.S. officials said he blew himself up and killed 12 others as the commandos closed in.

    Inside the Home Where Raid Was Conducted

    Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the Islamic State, was living in a three-story cinder block house when American forces attacked on Thursday.

    Sources: Building structure from pictures and videos taken before and after the raid.

    Roof and walls were collapsed in this area.

    Third floor

    American officials said Mr. al-Qurayshi and his family lived here. Mr. al-Qurayshi detonated explosives on this floor, killing himself, his wife and at least two children.

    Balcony

    Kitchen

    Parts of the walls and floor were covered with blood here.

    Second floor

    A top Islamic State lieutenant and his family were said to live here. The lieutenant, his wife and at least one child were killed in a firefight on this floor.

    Balcony

    Kitchen

    Ground floor

    American officials said a family with no connection to the terrorist group lived here and was safely evacuated.

    Room configuration of the first floor was not available.

    Mr. al-Qurayshi’s death came days after American forces backed a Kurdish-led militia in a bloody, weeklong battle to oust ISIS fighters from a prison in northeastern Syria, the largest U.S. combat assault on the Islamic State since the end of the jihadists’ so-called caliphate three years ago. That and the raid on Mr. al-Qurayshi has highlighted that the United States still cannot extricate itself completely from military engagement in Syria, and that its more than two-decade global fight against terrorist groups is far from over.

    Here are five takeaways from the raid:

    An American soldier last week in Hasaka, eastern Syria.
    Credit...Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

    The U.S. fight against terrorism grinds on, with no end in sight.

    Years of military action by the United States and its international partners aimed at stamping out terrorism have exacted major tolls, first against Al Qaeda and then against the Islamic State, which rose from the turmoil of the Iraq war and the collapse of the Syrian state. But even as an untold number of fighters have been killed and leaders eliminated, both groups have adapted into more diffuse organizations, adept at finding new havens from which to launch opportunistic violence.

    The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan this summer, facilitated by the U.S. military’s withdrawal, refocused international attention on the prospect of terrorists regaining the country as a haven. In Iraq, the Islamic State recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer at an army post and beheaded a police officer on camera. In Syria, it has assassinated scores of local leaders, extorting businesses to finance its operations.

    In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of American forces in August left the local Islamic State affiliate to battle the Taliban, with often disastrous consequences for civilians caught in the middle.

    “The recent attacks by ISIS,” said Mick Mulroy, a former top Pentagon official and retired C.I.A. paramilitary operations officer, “indicate that ISIS is not done fighting, nor is the U.S. and our partners.”

    A building damaged in the American raid this week.
    Credit...Ghaith Alsayed/Associated Press

    As the U.S. counterterrorism campaign evolves, commando operations remain rare.

    American efforts to combat terrorism around the world in recent years have been mostly defined by airstrikes and drone warfare, which have also exacted a huge — and largely unacknowledged — toll on civilians.

    The raid against Mr. al-Qurayshi was a reminder that the United States military retains the ability to carry out targeted commando operations, but they carry risks.

    The operation by about two dozen helicopter-borne Special Operations troops in northwestern Syria — plotted for months, executed on a moonless night and monitored 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.

    But because of the extensive planning and risks to troops that they entail, such raids are reserved for the most important targets.

    U.S. officials said they took care to avoid civilian casualties, evacuating 10 children from the building during the raid. That explosion appears to have been responsible for at least some of the 13 deaths in the operation, officials said.

    But in complex raids, the military’s initial version of events may be incomplete. Accounts of past operations have at times turned out to be contradictory or wrong, and the Pentagon said it was still collecting information from the raid.

    Kurdish special forces conducted house-to-house searches for escaped prisoners and ISIS fighters last week in Hasaka.
    Credit...Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

    Chaos in Syria offers jihadists a haven.

    President Bashar al-Assad has held onto power despite a decade-long civil war, but the Syrian state is a mess, with pockets of the country beyond his control and an illegal drug empire flourishing in government-held areas. A New York Times investigation last year found that Syrian elites with ties to Mr. al-Assad are behind a multibillion-dollar industry trafficking an illicit amphetamine that has become country’s most valuable export, far surpassing its legal products.

    The raid on Thursday took place in the Atmeh area, a rural backwater and smuggling town in the northwest that has swelled in population during the war. As tens of thousands of Syrians were displaced, huge camps sprang up, and analysts say jihadists have often hidden among civilians struggling to survive.

    Atmeh is in Idlib Province, which remains home to many violent extremist groups, dominated by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, formerly the Nusra Front, which was previously linked to Al Qaeda.

    Another security vacuum exists in northeastern Syria, where jihadists have found refuge by evading Kurdish-led militias supported by the United States near the border with Turkey and in the desert that spans the border with Iraq.

    Days before the raid, American forces backed a Kurdish-led militia in the city of Hasaka as it fought for more than a week to oust 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.

    President Biden on Thursday at the White House, where he discussed the raid that led to Mr. al-Qurayshi’s death.
    Credit...Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

    It was a victory for Biden amid other crises abroad.

    As he confronts Russia over its military buildup on the borders with Ukraine and faces a deepening rivalry with China — as well as domestic challenges including rising inflation and an intransigent 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 with no loss of American life, according to U.S. officials.

    After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, critics of Mr. Biden said that his military withdrawal from the country would hamper intelligence gathering against terrorist networks. The hunt for Mr. al-Qurayshi, whom intelligence officials had been tracking since last year, offered evidence that the United States retained the ability to track jihadist leaders in Syria.

    White House aides said that top Pentagon officials and military commanders apprised Mr. Biden of their planning, at one point presenting a tabletop model of the building where the Islamic State leader and his family lived — and noting that a Syrian family with no apparent connection to the terrorist group was living on the first floor.

    Mindful of the high risk of harm to civilians and to the commandos, military engineers told Mr. Biden that 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 an account from two Biden administration officials.

    In the end, Mr. Biden said, Mr. al-Qurayshi died when he exploded a bomb that killed him as well as members of his own family.

    The death of Mr. al-Qurayshi allows Mr. Biden, like his predecessors in the Oval Office, to claim 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.

    Islamic State fighters advancing through the desert in Iraq near Tikrit in 2014.
    Credit...via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    ISIS will probably persist, even without a unifying leader.

    At the height of its powers around 2015, the Islamic State controlled a portion of Syria and Iraq that was about the size of Britain. It lured droves 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, Calif. By December 2017, after a sustained U.S.-led military campaign, it had lost 95 percent of its territory.

    The fight continued as an American-led coalition joined with local forces in Syria and Iraq to roll back the group’s gains. A Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with American military support, pushed it from its last patch of territory in northeast Syria in early 2019. In October that year, the U.S. raid killed the group’s leader, Mr. al-Baghdadi.

    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 evade 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 don’t think anyone should be under the illusion that removing him from the organization is a death blow to Islamic State,” said Daniel Milton, the director of research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. “This hopefully will hamper the organization, but I don’t think it will eliminate the threat in the future.”

    SOURCE: The New York Times

    ISIS LEADER KILLED IN SYRIA BUT HIS NETWORK IS ASCENDANT IN AFRICA

    Biden hails the “over-the-horizon” raid that killed the ISIS leader, but similar U.S. tactics have failed to stop terror groups in Africa.

    Nick Turse


    February 4 2022, 4:21 p.m.

    AFTER THE NEWS broke that a U.S. raid in Syria ended with the death of the leader of the Islamic State, President Joe Biden made a case for his administration’s “over-the-horizon” warfare model. It’s a rebranding of the drone strikes and commando raids employed for the better part of 20 years in quasi-war zones like Somalia and Yemen — and basically a promise to hunt militants to the ends of the earth.

    “This operation is testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide, anywhere in the world,” Biden announced after the raid by U.S. special operations forces on the home of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. “I’m determined to protect the American people from terrorist threats, and I’ll take decisive action to protect this country.”

    That “capability” has proved decidedly lacking, however, in an area of the world where ISIS is ascendant, as one of Biden’s top generals acknowledged this week. “Candidly, I’m personally not satisfied with our progress against violent extremists in Africa — and particularly East Africa and West Africa,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said in response to a question from The Intercept during a Thursday conference call with reporters. “I assess that violent extremism in those two regions continues to expand in geography, reach, and influence.”

    Since the 2000s, the United States has regularly deployed small teams of commandos to advise, assist, and even accompany local forces into battle. The U.S. has provided weapons, equipment, and aircraft and offered many forms of counterterrorism training to partners all across the African continent, from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in the West to Kenya and Somalia in the East. There are now, however, no fewer than seven ISIS affiliates threatening as many as 11 countries — Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, and Somalia — according to the State Department and the Pentagon. Add in Al Qaeda-affiliated and other radical groups and the total number of Islamist terrorist organizations on the continent is at least 18

    “In the southern part of Africa, we’ve seen the emergence of ISIS-Central Africa and ISIS-Mozambique, which is of concern,” said Townsend. Last year, militant Islamist groups carried out almost one attack per day (329 in total) in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province alone, according to a recent report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution devoted to African security. Close to 1,100 people were killed in the violence. In the last two weeks, a surge of more than 20 attacks on four villages in Cabo Delgado displaced more than 14,000 people.

    Elsewhere on the continent, the situation is even worse. The Sahel, where both Al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups operate, saw attacks by militant Islamists jump last year from 1,180 to 2,005 — a 70 percent increase. “This continues an uninterrupted escalation of violence involving militant Islamist groups in the region since 2015,” the Africa Center noted in its report. “While having originated and still largely centered in Mali, the propensity of this violence has now shifted to Burkina Faso, which accounts for 58% of all events in the Sahel.”

    This violence is also spreading southward toward previously stable states along the Gulf of Guinea, according to Townsend. “JNIM, which is an arm of Al Qaeda, and ISIS groups continue to expand, creeping toward the coastal states,” he said. “We’ve seen recent attacks in Benin, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire. These attacks show this expansion that I’m concerned about.”

    Killing Women and Children

    In his celebratory comments Thursday, Biden praised the “precision” raid in Syria, even as rescue workers said that women and children were among at least 13 people killed during the attack, in which the ISIS leader set off an explosion that killed himself and others, according to the Pentagon. Spokesperson John Kirby blamed civilian deaths on al-Qurayshi “and his lieutenants.” It’s not yet clear what really happened during the raid and how those civilians were killed; first reports from the U.S. government have proved unreliable in the past.

    Biden boasted that U.S. forces “successfully removed a major terrorist threat to the world,” but the mission seemed little different from other high-profile post-9/11 raids. That includes the 2019 raid in which the previous ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took his own life with a suicide vest and the 2011 targeted killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, as well as the killings of many other lieutenants and middling militants in U.S. commando raids and airstrikes across the Middle East and Africa. These tactical triumphs have been fleeting and ultimately of little strategic consequence to America’s larger war effort, partly because civilian casualties in those strikes have frequently been used by both Al Qaeda and ISIS to bolster recruitment.

    Townsend, speaking shortly after news broke of the raid in Syria, acknowledged that U.S. military interventions needed to be paired with “good governance” for counterterrorism efforts to be effective. But the soldiers the U.S. trains in the Sahel keep overthrowing the governments that the U.S. is trying to prop up. Last month, a U.S.-trained officer overthrew the democratically elected president of Burkina Faso, the third coup in that country by an American protégé since 2014. In 2020 and 2021, another U.S.-trained officer twice overthrew the government of neighboring Mali.

    On the other side of the continent in Somalia, America has waged a war of special operations missions and drone strikes for close to 20 years. In 254 declared U.S. raids and airstrikes in Somalia since 2007 — including at least nine attacks under the Biden administration — AFRICOM claims that just five civilians have been killed, but the U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group Airwars estimates that the actual number may be as high as 143. Meanwhile, there was a 17 percent increase in attacks by the Al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab last year over 2020 numbers, according to the Africa Center. The 2,072 violent incidents, in a country where ISIS also operates, represent a doubling of attacks since 2015. “In Somalia, al-Shabab is taking advantage of the political leadership there being distracted by a prolonged political crisis,” said Townsend, referencing delayed legislative and presidential elections. “While that’s going on, the pressure is off al-Shabab.”

    In his remarks at the White House yesterday, Biden referenced “terrorist operations” by ISIS in Africa but touted America’s ability to “strengthen the security of our allies and partners around the world.” But the Africa Center tells a very different story, in which “security” is lacking for allies and partners all across the continent. “Overall, militant Islamist group violence in Africa climbed 10 percent in 2021 setting a record of over 5,500 reported events linked to these groups,” according to their recent report, which also estimated that 12,700 people were killed in the violence. Even Townsend echoed this: “I’m not satisfied with our progress,” he admitted. “I think there is work to be done.”

    SOURCE: The Intercept

    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

    Read more posts by this author.