Biden says IS leader killed, removing 'major terrorist' threat

By: AFP
Published: 07:47 AM, 4 Feb, 2022
Biden says IS leader killed, removing 'major terrorist' threat
Caption: File photo of IS leader.
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President Joe Biden said Thursday that a "terrorist threat to the world" was removed when the head of the Islamic State blew himself up, as US special forces swooped on his Syrian hideout in an "incredibly challenging" nighttime helicopter raid.

Biden said he had ordered an assault by troops rather than an airstrike in order to minimize civilian casualties, even though this meant "much greater risk to our own people." There were no US casualties.

The death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi is the biggest setback to the IS jihadist group since his predecessor, the better-known Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US commando raid in the same Syrian region of Idlib in 2019.

"Last night's operation 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," Biden said in a brief, somber address from the White House's Roosevelt Room.

Biden said the house targeted overnight in the town of Atme contained "families, including children."

"As our troops approached to capture the terrorist, in a final act of desperate cowardice, with no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building, he chose to blow himself up," Biden said.

Qurashi detonated the entire top floor, Biden said, "taking several members of his family with him."

General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said later that Qurashi "did not fight" the US soldiers, but set off the explosive "as we attempted to call for his surrender."

The three-level building of raw cinder blocks bore the scars of an intense battle, with torn window frames, charred ceilings and a partly collapsed roof, AFP correspondents said. Inside, they saw a simple room with little more than foam mattresses, blankets, colorful clothes and children's toys.

The US government had offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Qurashi, who was an Iraqi also known as Amir Mohammed Said Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, said seven civilians were among at least 13 people killed in the operation, four of them children. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at least three civilians died -- Qurashi's wife and their two children.

In a rare gesture of solidarity amid soaring East-West tensions, Russia's foreign ministry said "we support" the US anti-terrorism stance.

- Rent paid -

Atme residents were shocked to hear that their neighbor in the modest house surrounded by olive trees was in fact the leader of the Islamic State. One of the world's most wanted men, he lived with his family and sister. 

Even his landlord, Mohamed al-Sheikh, was perplexed, saying he thought he had leased the house to a cab driver.

"This man lived here for 11 months. I did not notice anything strange about him," al-Sheikh said. "He would pay me rent and leave."

A witness told AFP he woke to the sound of helicopters.

"Then we heard small explosions. Then we heard stronger explosions," said Abu Ali, a displaced Syrian living in Atme, adding the United States blasted messages to reassure residents.

He heard American forces say "don't worry. We're just coming to this house... to rid you of the terrorists."

The American helicopters took off from a military base in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani, according to the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

However, McKenzie denied claims that members of the US-trained, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, were present. They made "invaluable" contributions but "did not accompany the force to the objective," he said.

While the US side had no casualties, one of the helicopters had to be destroyed after developing mechanical problems, according to a senior US official. Its smoldering remains were photographed in the village of Jinderes in northern Aleppo province.

- Prison battle -

Atme is home to a huge camp for families displaced by the decade-old conflict and which experts have warned was being used by jihadists as a place to hide among civilians.

US special forces have carried out several operations against high-value jihadist targets in the area in recent months, with the military on October 23 announcing the killing of senior Al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar.

The area, the last enclave to actively oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad, is mostly administered by a body loyal to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group led by former members of what was once Al-Qaeda's franchise in Syria.

The death of the IS leader comes two weeks after the group staged a huge attack to spring its fighters from a Kurdish-run prison in northeastern Syria.

Hundreds were killed in what was IS's most high-profile operation since the demise of its "caliphate" nearly three years earlier.

Boost for Biden's foreign policy stature

The daring US helicopter raid deep in Syria that ended in the death of one of the world's most wanted men gives Joe Biden the kind of dramatic military win presidents crave -- and one the Democrat particularly needed.

"A major terrorist threat to the world" was extinguished, Biden said Thursday, unveiling details of the death of "horrible" Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.

Facing simultaneously a showdown with Russia over Ukraine, a flurry of North Korean missile tests, an ever-diminishing window of opportunity to control Iran's nuclear program and Chinese saber-rattling over Taiwan, Biden's foreign policy to-do list is daunting.

And Republican critics have worked hard to generate a narrative that Biden is weak, making the world a more dangerous place.

Biden's answer? Pictures of the devastated house in Syria's Idlib region, where Qurashi blew himself up, and a White House-issued photo of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Situation Room during the operation.

The raid, which saw no US losses, is "a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you," Biden said.

In the post-9/11 world, killing far-flung jihadist leaders has become almost an expected display of strength for presidents.

Under Barack Obama, Americans cheered the riveting news in 2011 that Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden, the man behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, had finally been killed by US special forces in Pakistan.

Donald Trump, who repeatedly claimed to be the greatest president on many fronts, was if anything even more triumphant after the 2019 US operation in Syria killing Qurashi's predecessor as head of IS -- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In eyebrow-raising comments, Trump used a national address to describe how Baghdadi "died like a dog... in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him."

Biden's record as commander in chief, until now, was associated mostly with the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan -- even if the White House argues that the chaos was unavoidable in exiting a failed, 20-year war.

Now he has a clearcut victory.

"This operation is testament to America's reach and capability," he said in his own address to the nation.

- Grudging applause -

Even Republicans who have been pounding Biden over Russia, Iran and China, could not avoid applauding the apparently textbook military operation carried out in the dead of night.

"Very good news," Senator Mitt Romney said.

Senator John Thune, the second highest ranking Republican, called the raid "a positive development" and a "model for how things work" in using special forces.

"I really appreciate the counterterrorism operation," said Senator Lindsey Graham, although he tempered his appreciation by claiming the administration "is deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to the growing radical Islamic threats emerging from Afghanistan."

Biden will next have to return to the higher-stakes tussles with the likes of Moscow and Beijing, which critics say are exploiting signs of American indecision.

"Is it any surprise that Chinese planes are flying over Taiwan? Or that North Korea is testing missiles again? Or that Iran is ramping up its nuclear program? They all sense Biden's weakness," Nikki Haley, who served as UN ambassador under Trump, tweeted this week.

Biden, who has decades of foreign policy experience from his time in the Senate, lays out a very different picture.

On Ukraine, for example, he is sending US troops to bolster NATO forces in Europe and leading intensive diplomatic efforts to maintain Western unity against Russia, with threats of "devastating" sanctions, levied in coordination with EU powers, should Moscow launch an invasion.

But whatever he does, he struggles to get support from opponents in a brutally divided Washington.

On one side, Republican hawks are hammering Biden for not imposing preemptive sanctions against Russia. At another extreme, the right's isolationist wing is questioning why the United States should want to defend Ukraine from Russia at all.

Biden is doing a "pretty good job of balancing the competing demands," said Kori Schake, director of foreign policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

AFP

Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.