Inside the daring US raid that killed ISIS leader after months of planning

The two-hour operation in north-west Syria took months of preparation and was designed to minimise civilian casualties

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An operation by US special forces that led to the death of ISIS leader Muhammad Al Mawla in north-west Syria was the result of several raid rehearsals and months of painstaking preparation, officials told US media outlets on Friday.

The officials said the risky, two-hour predawn mission was designed to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.

The operation to eliminate Al Mawla, also known as Abu Ibrahim Al Hashimi Al Qurayshi, was set in motion months ago with an intelligence tip that the terrorist chief was hiding out on the top floor of a house in the town of Atmeh, in Idlib province.

Al Mawla lived in a building that housed several families. He occasionally went outside to bathe on the roof, one official told AP.

It meant any air strike would have unavoidably killed many civilians.

Given that ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi's last act in 2019 was to blow himself up with a suicide belt when confronted by US commandos, the team behind Thursday’s raid considered whether Al Qurayshi’s house would collapse upon all the people inside if he did the same thing.

They decided the building would stand.

An aerial view of the compound housing ISIS leader Muhammad Al Mawla, also known as Abu Ibrahim Al Hashimi Al Qurayshi, in north-west Syria. AFP

Facing criticism over the number of civilian deaths in US air strikes, President Joe Biden chose an approach that was riskier for American troops but intended to be safer for those who were innocent.

“We made a choice to pursue a special forces raid, at a much greater risk to our own people, rather than targeting him with an air strike. We made this choice to minimise civilian casualties,” Mr Biden said, speaking from the White House.

Two dozen US commandos landed outside Al Mawla’s Syrian hideout and warned people in nearby homes to stay inside, US officials told AP.

As one of their first moves, they called out to families living in the same building as Al Mawla. By the time the operation ended, 10 civilians had been led to safety, the officials said. There were no US casualties.

Muhammad Al Mawla, also known as Abu Ibrahim Al Hashimi Al Qurayshi. US State Department/AFP

Civilians killed

Planning for the operation began in early December, when officials became convinced the ISIS leader was living in the building in Atmeh.

Mr Biden received a detailed briefing on December 20 on the options available to capture Al Mawla alive, a senior White House official told Reuters.

One US official said the operation was complicated by the fact the terrorist rarely left his residence and relied on couriers to interact with the outside world.

The number of children observed in the area and families believed to be living on the first floor led US officials to try to craft a mission designed to protect civilians, they said.

That ultimately required putting US forces at risk in a raid, instead of launching a remote strike, the officials said.

But the US raid still brought the deaths of women and children. Al Mawla’s wife and two children were killed along with the militant leader when he detonated a suicide bomb that resulted in the collapse of the building.

An ISIS lieutenant and his wife also died along with a child, after they fired upon US forces, officials said.

Damage after US attack in Atmeh, Syria – in pictures

Syrian rescue workers said at least 13 people died, most of them women and children.

Abu Hasan, a resident of Atmeh, said the ferocious gun battle had damaged several buildings in the area. Images from the scene showed a garage close to the terrorist’s house pockmarked with large impact holes.

“Nearby buildings got damaged as well, and a car that was in the area was targeted,” he told The National.

Basel Sbieh, a refugee from southern Idlib, said some residents left their homes to see what was happening. “There was a crossfire that caused some material damage in houses and shops,” he said.

On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said ground forces had fired on a group of people near the scene who were “deemed hostile,” killing two.

“It appears as if a child was also killed,” he said.

Rights advocates and legal experts have found fault with successive Republican and Democratic administrations in the US for their heavy reliance on air strikes in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere.

Opponents argue that attacks by air, while minimising risk to American forces, raise the risk for civilians near a US target.

Strikes down by more than half

Military strikes of all kinds have declined dramatically under Mr Biden, according to Airwars, which tracks US attacks.

The number of strikes dropped 54 per cent from 2020 to 2021, a period when the Biden administration was moving forward with what in August became a complete US withdrawal from the 20-year Afghanistan conflict, according to Airwars.

However, the Biden administration has come under criticism for civilian casualties, including during the withdrawal from Kabul in August.

The raid came days after a tense week-long battle between US-backed Syrian fighters in north-eastern Syria and ISIS militants, who occupied a prison in the city of Hassakeh.

Updated: February 04, 2022, 1:16 PM
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