Following a military mission which killed the leader of the Islamic State group, President Joe Biden praised U.S special operations forces for their heroism and skill in the complicated operation.
“Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said on a national address about the mission Thursday morning.
“I’m grateful for the immense courage and skill and determination of our U.S. forces who skillfully executed this incredibly challenging mission. The members of our military are the solid steel backbone of this nation, ready to fly into danger at a moment’s notice to keep our country and the American people safe.”
Military officials described the operation as one of the most complex missions designed by the military in years, with extensive care taken to minimize civilian casualties. Defense Department leaders have taken significant criticism in recent months for downplaying or obscuring information related to the civilian cost of air strikes against terrorist threats worldwide.
White House officials said the leader of Islamic State — Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla (also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, or Hajji Abdullah) — was killed in the raid, along with another top terrorist official.
“This is a this is a man that we should all be happy is no longer walking on the face of the earth,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Thursday.
Al-Qurayshi detonated an explosive that killed himself and others, Kirby said, as U.S. forces closed in.
“But let me be very clear: Hajji Abdullah did not fight,” the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, said Thursday during an engagement with the Middle East Institute. “He killed himself and his immediate family without fighting, even as we attempted to call for his surrender and offered him a path to survive.”
CENTCOM believes that at least three other people died in the blast, including two women, one child and possibly more.
One of al-Qurayshi’s deputies, and that man’s wife, fired on U.S. troops, who returned fire and killed them, according to Kirby.
A child was found dead alongside them, McKenzie said later.
Two suspected al-Qaida fighters were gunned down from a U.S. helicopter, McKenzie added.
“This operation was specifically designed and conducted in a manner to minimize civilian casualties,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Thursday. “We know that al-Qurayshi and others at his compound directly caused the deaths of women and children last night. But, given the complexity of this mission, we will take a look at the possibility our actions may also have resulted in harm to innocent people.”
“We also know, as I said, that we were able to safely evacuate 10 civilians from the compound,” Kirby added, including six adults and four children.
There had been a $10 million reward for the capture of al-Qurayshi, though Kirby declined to say whether anyone who provided intelligence to the U.S. would receive it.
Islamic State officials had announced al-Mawla as the leader of the group following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019. He was killed by American forces in a similar mission in the same area.
Senior administration officials said they have been tracking al-Mawla for months. He rarely left the compound in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, using couriers to disseminate messages and orders for ISIS followers.
They also said al-Mawla was linked to numerous atrocities and terrorist attacks, including the bombing at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan last August that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and a seige on a Syrian prison one week ago.
In his brief speech outlining the mission, Biden said that al-Mawla’s death “took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield and sent a strong message to terrorists around the world.
“We will come after you and find you,” he said. “We continue our unceasing effort to keep the American people safe, and to strengthen the security of our allies and partners around the world.”
Months of planning
Senior administration officials said the raid had been in planning stages for months, with the commander in chief giving the final approval for the assault on Tuesday.
A Defense Department official said the idea of a remote or drone strike on the target was ruled out early because of the number of potential civilian casualties involved. Intelligence showed that al-Mawla was living in a three-story building with an unrelated civilian family on the first floor.
Military planners brought models of the compound and surrounding area to the White House in December to begin planning for the attack.
Before the raid began, one U.S. helicopter involved in the mission was forced down due to mechanical issues. The defense official said that happened a significant distance from the attack site and resulted in no injuries, but it forced troops to abandon and destroy the aircraft.
When U.S. forces arrived, they successfully evacuated the civilian family from al-Mawla’s hideout. As that happened, the terrorist leader denotated a blast which destroyed the third floor, killing him, his wife and children.
Following the explosion, U.S. forces engaged in a shootout with a top lieutenant of al-Mawla who lived on the second floor with his family. That man and his wife (who officials said was armed and engaged in the fight) were both killed. Several children were evacuated in the aftermath.
A senior administration official said that all of the civilian casualties in the mission (military planners still don’t have a final number) occurred because of Islamic State actions, not due to U.S. military gunfire or weaponry.
The Associated Press reported that first responders on the scene counted 13 people killed in the attack, including six children and four women.
As U.S. forces left the area, they were attacked by local fighters believed to be connected to al-Qaida. McKenzie’s recounting of the events included nine confirmed deaths.
The operation lasted more than two hours, and resulted in no significant U.S. military injuries.
A senior administration official said that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were in the situation room receiving real-time updates from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin throughout the operation, and praised the military for the result.
“We know [al-Mawla] was directly overseeing the activities of ISIS across Iraq and Syria, which we’re seeking to reconstitute under his leadership,” the senior official said. “The world is a safer place with him gone.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.