Five takeaways from the US raid that killed the Islamic State leader

The daring pre-dawn raid by US special operations forces in Syria that resulted in the death of the Islamic State leader was a stark reminder that no matter how far the world might want to go , the chaos in Syria continues to reverberate.

The sudden roar of US Apache attack helicopters in a pastoral area of ​​northwestern Syria gave way to an exchange of fire Thursday 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. US officials said he blew himself up and had killed 12 more people as the commandos closed in. .

Mr al-Qurayshi’s death came days after US forces backed a Kurdish-led militia in a bloody week-long battle to drive IS fighters out of a northeast prison. Syria, the biggest US attack against the Islamic State since the end of the jihadists. so-called caliphate three years ago. That and the raid on Mr. al-Qurayshi have highlighted that the United States still cannot fully extricate itself from military involvement in Syria, and that its more than two-decade global fight against terrorist groups is a long way off. to be finished.

Here are five takeaways from the raid:

Years of military action by the United States and its international partners aimed at eradicating terrorism have taken a heavy toll, first against al-Qaeda, then against the Islamic State, born out of the unrest of the war in Iraq. and the collapse of the Syrian state. But even as countless fighters have been killed and leaders eliminated, both groups have adapted into more diffuse organizations, able to find new havens from which to launch opportunist violence.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan this summer, facilitated by the withdrawal of the US military, has refocused international attention on the prospect of terrorists retaking the country as a safe haven. In Iraq, the Islamic State recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer at a military post and beheaded a policeman on camera. In Syria, he assassinated dozens of local leaders, extorting businesses to fund his operations.

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

“The recent attacks by ISIS,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired CIA paramilitary operations officer, “indicate that ISIS is not done fighting, not more than the United States and our partners”.

American efforts to fight terrorism around the world in recent years have been primarily defined by airstrikes and drone warfare, which have also taken a heavy — and largely unacknowledged — toll on civilians.

The raid on Mr. al-Qurayshi served as a reminder that the US military retains the ability to conduct targeted commando operations, but they carry risks.

The operation by about two dozen special operations soldiers airlifted into northwest Syria – planned for months, executed on a moonless night and monitored on video screens from the White House Situation Room – bore striking similarities to the US raids that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the same part of Syria in 2019.

But due to the extensive planning and the risk they entail for the troops, these raids are reserved for the most important targets.

US officials said they took care to avoid civilian casualties, evacuating 10 children from the building during the raid. That blast appears to have been responsible for at least some of the 13 fatalities during the operation, officials said.

But in complex raids, the army’s initial version of events may be incomplete. Accounts of past operations have sometimes been found to be contradictory or incorrect, and the Pentagon said it was still gathering information about the raid.

President Bashar al-Assad has retained 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 thriving in controlled areas. by the government. A New York Times investigation last year found that Syrian elites linked to Mr al-Assad are behind a multi-billion dollar industry trafficking in an illicit amphetamine that has become China’s most valuable export of the country, far exceeding its legal products.

Thursday’s raid took place in the Atmeh region, a remote rural and smuggling town in the northwest that swelled in population during the war. As tens of thousands of Syrians have been displaced, huge camps have sprung up 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, formerly the Nusra Front, which was previously linked to al-Qaeda.

Another security vacuum exists in northeast Syria, where jihadists have found refuge escaping US-backed Kurdish-led militias near the border with Turkey and in the desert that straddles the border with Turkey. Iraq.

Days before the raid, US forces supported a Kurdish-led militia in the town of Hasaka as it fought for more than a week to drive Islamic State fighters from a prison they had occupied. The battle killed hundreds and served as a reminder of the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence.

As he confronts Russia over its military buildup on the borders with Ukraine and faces growing rivalry with China – as well as domestic challenges including rising inflation and an intransigent Republican opposition in Congress – President Biden has won a political victory with the mission in Syria. He eliminated one of the world’s most wanted terrorist leaders with no loss of American life, according to US officials.

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

White House aides say senior Pentagon officials and military commanders briefed Biden on their planning, at one point showing 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 terror group lived on the first floor.

Aware of the high risk of harm 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 an account by two Biden administration officials.

Ultimately, Mr. Biden said, Mr. al-Qurayshi died when he detonated a bomb that killed him and members of his own family.

Mr. al-Qurayshi’s death allows Mr. Biden, like his predecessors in the Oval Office, to take credit for taking out a jihadist leader whose group is responsible for scores of civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq , and deadly terrorist attacks around the world. .

At the height of its powers around 2015, the Islamic State controlled a swath of Syria and Iraq that was roughly the size of Britain. He drew hordes of foreign fighters from as far away as China and Australia and led a sophisticated propaganda machine that inspired or directed foreign attacks from Berlin to San Bernardino, California. By December 2017, after a sustained military campaign led by the United States, it had lost 95% of its territory.

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

After Mr. al-Qurayshi replaced Mr. al-Baghdadi, the United States put a bounty on his head up to $10 million. Mr al-Qurayshi kept a low profile to evade capture, which analysts say prevented him from extending the group’s reach. But the group has evolved to the point that one man’s death doesn’t mean he’s no longer a threat.

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

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