Did a US raid take out the leader of ISIS? UPDATE: Biden says yes

Just how “successful” was this raid in northwest Syria? It depends on who the target really was. The Pentagon has said little about targeting thus far other than calling the raid a counter-terrorism mission. However, the New York Times hears from a well-placed source that the top leader of ISIS may have joined his predecessor, Joe Biden will have a statement shortly from the White House that might identify the target:

U.S. Special Operations forces carried out what the Pentagon called a “successful” counterterrorism mission in northwest Syria early Thursday. The risky commando assault targeted someone believed to be a senior jihadist leader, but rescue workers said women and children were among at least 13 people killed during the raid.

A senior Iraqi intelligence official said the target of the raid was the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, but U.S. officials did not confirm that and have not said who the target was.

The helicopter-borne commando assault resembled the raid in October 2019 that culminated in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the previous leader of the Islamic State. That raid took place not far from the one on Thursday.

The airborne raid came days after the end of the largest U.S. combat involvement with the Islamic State since the end of the jihadists’ so-called caliphate three years ago. American forces backed a Kurdish-led militia in northeastern Syria as it fought for more than a week to oust Islamic State fighters from a prison they had occupied in the city of Hasaka.

The battle in Atmeh didn’t last terribly long, apparently. After identifying and surrounding the house, US special forces tried to get all of the residents out for a couple of hours, using loudspeakers to demand surrender in Arabic. That turned out as well as one would imagine when involving senior jihadist commanders. Two hours in, the NYT reports that “a major battle erupted,” but doesn’t specify which side started it. We do know which side ended it, though:

After about two hours, the house’s occupants had not emerged and a major battle erupted, with heavy machine gun fire and apparent missile strikes that damaged the house, collapsed some of its walls and blew out its windows.

If that sequence gets confirmed, then the responsibility for the collateral deaths of civilians inside the compound belongs to the commander inside the house. Two hours is plenty of time to wait for the release of non-combatants, and perhaps even a bit too long considering the risks of conducting a raid with a relatively small force in hostile territory.

The question is who else got killed and what their role is, or was. Al-Qurayshi would be the biggest target, a chance to again lop the head off the ISIS snake and create panic and division in what’s left of the terror network. ISIS has made something of a comeback of late, conducting a surprisingly effective but finally futile raid on a prison compound in Hasaka on the other side of Syria. US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces in the area finally beat them a few days ago, with enemy casualties initially estimated at 200 or so. The prison held 3500 suspected ISIS fighters, and ISIS later claimed hundreds had escaped in the melee, but even if that were true it would probably have been a pretty bad trade in strategic terms. It does point out that ISIS has begun thinking again in land-control terms, however, and that it’s far from dead. Even al-Qurayshi’s demise would likely only slow down their ambitions rather than end them, especially if the US takes a more passive role in the region again over the next few years.

Who might it have been if not al-Qurayshi? It might have been another ISIS leadership figure, Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi, who was also rumored to be the new top ISIS leader after the death of al-Baghdadi in October 2019. It’s possible that al-Salbi and al-Qurayshi are/were the same person, too, as noms des guerres and real names get confused by Western media at times. The target of the raid could have been a leader of al-Qaeda too, which also operates in Idlib. The Pentagon has apparently recovered DNA from its target and might have an identity as soon this hour.

Let’s hope they got someone worth the risk in any event. Thankfully we incurred no casualties, and only lost one helicopter in the raid. If it was an ISIS target, they lost more than a leader. Coming so soon on the heels of their Hasaka defeat, they now have to worry that the US and/or its allies have penetrated their communications and might have more raiding parties on the way. Let’s hope that’s the case, too.

Update: The statement from the White House came a little early:

The White House released a statement from President Biden, who described the raid as a “counterterrorism operation to protect the American people and our Allies, and make the world a safer place.”

Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the current leader of ISIS, was “taken off the battlefield” in the operation, Mr. Biden said, confirming that all U.S. forces who took part had returned safely. The president said he would address the American people later on Thursday about the raid. His statement made no mention of the reported civilian casualties.

Presumably, the DNA analysis was complete. If so, it’s a big win for US counter-terrorism efforts, but it’s not the end of the war with ISIS, no more than al-Baghdadi’s death was. It’s a big step in the right direction, though.

This seems interesting, too:

Residents and activists described the raid as the biggest operation since the October 2019 killing of then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Charles Lister, senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, remarked to Reuters that the U.S. forces “clearly … wanted whoever it was alive.”

That was true with al-Baghdadi too, who chose to blow himself up instead. Did al-Qurayshi follow his boss’ example?

Update: No seriously, this is great news:

Update: Yup, a coward to the end like his boss:

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