Biden calls death of Islamic State leader a warning to terrorists worldwide
By Eric Schmitt and Ben Hubbard
President Joe Biden said Thursday that the leader of the Islamic State militant group died during a raid by U.S. Special Operations commandos in a risky pre-awn attack in northwest Syria. Rescue workers said women and children were among at least 13 people killed during the raid.
In brief remarks at the White House, Biden said the choice to target the Islamic State leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, using the Special Forces was made to minimize civilian casualties, despite the greater risk to U.S. troops.
Biden said that al-Qurayshi died when he exploded a bomb that killed him as well as members of his own family. The president described al-Qurayshi’s history, saying that he had ordered a series of atrocities, including against the Yazidi people.
“Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” he said.
Biden called the operation a warning to terrorist groups.
“This operation is testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hid anywhere in the world,” he said.
Before his White House remarks, Biden had said in a statement, “All Americans have returned safely from the operation.”
The helicopter-borne assault carried out by about two dozen U.S. commandos, backed by helicopter gunships, armed Reaper drones and attack jets, resembled the raid in October 2019 in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the previous Islamic State leader, died when he detonated a suicide vest as U.S. forces raided a hideout not far from where Thursday’s operation took place.
The airborne raid came days after the end of the largest U.S. combat involvement with the Islamic State group since the end of the jihadis’ so-called caliphate three years ago. U.S. 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.
Little is known about al-Qurayshi, who succeeded al-Baghdadi, or the Islamic State’s top command structure. But analysts said the leader’s death was a significant blow to the terrorist group.
U.S. helicopters ferried the commandos into position after midnight, surrounding a house in Atmeh, a town close to the border with Turkey in rebel-held Idlib province, according to eyewitnesses, social media reports and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a conflict monitor based in Britain.
A tense standoff briefly ensued, with loudspeakers blaring warnings in Arabic for everyone in the house to surrender, neighbors said. Then an explosion rocked the building. After that, some of 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.
During the operation, one of the helicopters suffered a mechanical problem, was forced to land and was later destroyed by American attack aircraft. After about three hours, the U.S. commandos and their remaining helicopters flew off, witnesses said.
Given the fluid nature of early reports in a complex raid like Thursday’s operation, the military’s initial version may be incomplete. Accounts of other events have at times turned out to be contradictory or sometimes flat wrong.
Video from the scene on social media showed people pulling the bodies of at least nine men, women and children from the rubble of the badly damaged house.
Witnesses said that U.S. strikes on the house caused the damage. But according to Biden and Pentagon officials, al-Qurayshi detonated an explosive in his third-floor apartment in the building, and that explosion appeared responsible for at least some of the deaths.
The Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, pulled bodies and survivors from the rubble after the airstrikes and posted on Twitter that at least 13 people had been killed during the operation, including four women and six children. The group did not provide further details on the identities of those killed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported 13 deaths, including three women and four children and others who had not yet been identified. UNICEF said in a statement that at least six children were killed “due to heavy violence.”
The raid targeted a stand-alone, three-story cinder block building surrounded by olive trees. Images shared on social media by activists who visited the site showed simple rooms with mats on the floors, a diesel heater and clothes and blankets scattered about, some of them covered with blood.