24 commandos, Black Hawks and Reaper drones: How the US mission to kill ISIS leader unfolded

24 commandos, Black Hawks and Reaper drones: How the US mission to kill ISIS leader unfolded

ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi never left his three-story building outside the Syrian town of Atmeh

ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi never left his three-story building outside the Syrian town of Atmeh

The rarely-seen leader of ISIS – who was killed early Thursday during a raid in Northern Syria by US special forces – was found moving around the Syrian province of Idlib around the time that ISIS fighters were trying to gain control of a prison late last month.

Iraqi intelligence, aided by informants in Syria’s Islamic State detention camps, detected Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi on the move in the Syrian province of Idlib, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The province is about 280 mi east of the prison that ISIS fighters tried, and failed, to gain control of in a week-long battle late last month. 

Western counterterrorism agents learned he was ‘personally involved in the prison incident,’ which may have led to his death when he detonated a suicide vest that killed him and 12 others, including members of his family, while he was surrounded by US forces.

The helicopters arrived low and fast out of the sky about an hour after midnight.

American intelligence officers had pinpointed the leader of ISIS to the top of a three-story house among the olive groves just outside Atmeh, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey.

Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was a stickler for security. He never left the building, running his terrorist group with messages sent through a lieutenant who lived on the floor below.

Two hours later al-Qurayshi – also known as Hajji Abdullah – was dead and 24 elite U.S. commandos were on their way home.

The first neighbors knew of the lethal operation was the sound of helicopters, rousing them from their sleep.

Minutes later they heard a voice through a bullhorn telling the building’s occupants to give themselves up.

‘Those who want to take part in jihad, come out,’ the voice said, according to a neighbor who spoke to the New York Times. 

‘Everyone will be safe if you surrender. Those who remain will die.’

At about the same time, another neighbor heard banging on his own door. 

American helicopters carrying 24 commandos arrived just after 1am. When they left two hours later ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was dead

American helicopters carrying 24 commandos arrived just after 1am. When they left two hours later ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was dead

An aerial image released by the Pentagon shows the compound where ISIS emir al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi lived. He ran his terror network through a lieutenant living on the second floor

An aerial image released by the Pentagon shows the compound where ISIS emir al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi lived. He ran his terror network through a lieutenant living on the second floor

The top floor of the house was all but destroyed by the force of the suicide blast that killed al-Qurayshi. It was so powerful, said locals, that bodies were flung clear of the building

The top floor of the house was all but destroyed by the force of the suicide blast that killed al-Qurayshi. It was so powerful, said locals, that bodies were flung clear of the building

He opened it to find American commandos – early, unconfirmed reports suggested they were members of Delta Force – and an Arabic translator, who quickly told his family to leave their house and shelter behind another building. 

In the age of social media, any secrecy was blown by now. Locals took to social media to report helicopter gunships and warplanes overhead. Flight tracking data showed drones monitoring the raid. 

‘The first moments were terrifying; no one knew what was happening,’ Jamil el-Deddo, a resident of a nearby refugee camp, told the Associated Press. 

‘We were worried it could be Syrian aircraft, which brought back memories of barrel bombs that used to be dropped on us.’ 

Al-Qurayshi’s hideaway was already surrounded. 

American officials, in their account after the raid, said the commandos knew there was a civilian family living on the first floor potentially hindering an all-out assault. 

But as they repeated their warnings through a loudspeaker one man, one woman and an unspecified number of children fled the building.      

This ‘tactical call-out’ phase took about 45 minutes, according to one account. 

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the president's national security team observe the operation from the White House Situation Room

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the president’s national security team observe the operation from the White House Situation Room

The remains of a U.S. helicopter used in the raid on Thursday morning. Officials said it developed a mechanical problem and was later destroyed

The remains of a U.S. helicopter used in the raid on Thursday morning. Officials said it developed a mechanical problem and was later destroyed

The raid was carried out close to Atmeh, a Syrian town close to the Turkish border. To complicate matters, it is territory held by feuding extremist groups

The raid was carried out close to Atmeh, a Syrian town close to the Turkish border. To complicate matters, it is territory held by feuding extremist groups

Video shared on social media captured the messages.

‘The area is surrounded by land and air,’ said one message. ‘The children are without blame. If there are children, they should come to me.’

Then they they took a more threatening turn with warnings that American forces were about to open fire.

Surrounded and outnumbered, with Black Hawks overhead, the ISIS leader on the third floor had only one way out.

‘Unfortunately, ISIS once again revealed its barbarity,’ said a senior administration official.

‘In a final act of cowardice and disregard for human life, Hajji Abdullah detonated a blast – a significant blast – killing himself and several others, including his wife and children.’

Any hope of capturing al-Qurayshi alive and interrogating him for his secrets was gone.

The explosion ripped through the third floor of the building. It was so powerful, said the officials, that bodies were flung clear of the rubble.

The detonation was the signal for the commandos to move in. But as they approached the building they came under fire from the second floor of the building.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed that the ISIS lieutenant opened fire  – ‘actually one of his lieutenants and the lieutenant’s wife firing back at our forces,’ he said. They were killed.’ 

Officials said four children then left the building. A fifth had been killed on the second floor. 

During the operation one of the helicopters suffered what Kirby described as a ‘drive train issue.’ 

It was landed at another site where a rapid inspection suggested it could not be used during the rest of the operation, he added.  

Troops on the ground reportedly rigged it for demolition and it was then destroyed by one of US aircraft firing on it. 

Images from the site suggested it was a Nightstalker MH-60 Black Hawk, which in their basic form cost more than $5 million before being equipped for special forces use.

An aerial view of wreckage around the site after an operation carried out by US forces targeting a high ranking jihadist in northern Syria last night

An aerial view of wreckage around the site after an operation carried out by US forces targeting a high ranking jihadist in northern Syria last night

Pictures from inside the building show blood spattering the walls after the raid

Pictures from inside the building show blood spattering the walls after the raid

A doll lies among the debris inside the house. First responders told the Associated Press that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women

A doll lies among the debris inside the house. First responders told the Associated Press that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women

The location of the house, in an area controlled by a former Al Qaeda affiliate, brought further complications.

Before the team could leave one of the helicopters came under fire from hostile gunmen, said a senior administration official.

Two enemy combatants died in the ensuing firefight. 

But from start to finish – or ‘soup to nuts’ as Kirby put it – the whole thing lasted two hours.

That included time for the commandos to use fingerprints to confirm they had got their man and to collect a tissue sample for a more precise DNA analysis.

And they would almost certainly have combed the wreckage of the second and third floors for phones, hard drives or any paper documents that might offer an insight into ISIS and its inner workings. 

But unlike the 2011 raid to kill al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden they left the body of al-Qurayshi behind.

First responders told the Associated Press that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women. 

And as the sun came up, photographs posted to social media showed garages some 100 yards away that had been strafed with what looked like 30mm cannon – leading analysts to suggest that US forces had acted to put escape vehicles out of action. 

Defense Secretary Austin Lloyd Austin said the raid was designed to minimize civilian casualties. 

‘We know that al-Qurayshi and others at his compound directly caused the deaths of women and children last night,’ he said. 

‘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.’

ISIS leader known as The Professor who blew himself up rather than face justice: Ex-Saddam officer al-Qurayshi who was imprisoned alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, eliminated his rivals and was once a US INFORMANT 

Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi’s role as the head of ISIS meant he carried an American bounty of $10 million – yet at other times in his complicated life, the man nicknamed ‘The Professor’ had also been a U.S. informant.

During his rise to the top of the terrorist group he was known as cruel but popular figure among the ISIS rank and file.

Al-Qurayshi, also known as Abdullah Qardash, was nicknamed The Professor or The Destroyer because of his reputation as a brutal legislator

Al-Qurayshi, also known as Abdullah Qardash, was nicknamed The Professor or The Destroyer because of his reputation as a brutal legislator

He replaced Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after his predecessor blew himself up with a suicide vest during a U.S. raid in 2019. 

His real name was Amir Mohammed Saeed Abdul-Rahman al-Mawla. But on being elevated to the top job he took the nom de guerre of al-Qurayshi – a name that signifies links to the tribe of the Prophe Muhammad.

In his two years at the top, he kept himself hidden away. There are almost no public photos of him in existence and he did not take part in ISIS propaganda videos.  

Earlier in his career he is believed to have been an officer in Saddam Hussein’s military who forged an alliance with al-Baghdadi in prison before becoming his enforcer and chief policymaker.

Al-Qurayshi was once known to U.S. officials as a cooperative informant, who divulged details to American forces on the Islamic State in Iraq. He was captured in 2007 or 2008, and spent months in an American detention camp in Iraq. 

Defense Department documents described an at-times ‘cooperative’ informant who under interrogation revealed details on the group that he would go on to lead.  

According to a statement by Amaq, ISIS’s press agency, Baghdadi appointed Al-Qurayshi to run the group’s day-to-day operations in August 2019, making him the heir-apparent before his former boss killed himself during the raid by US forces in Syria.

In 2020, the U.S. doubled the bounty on the new ISIS leader’s head to $10 million. But al-Qurayshi maintained a low profile – he did not appear in public, and rarely released any audio recordings. His influence and day-to-day involvement in the group’s operations is not known, and he has no known successor.

Al-Qurayshi – also known as Hajji Abdullah al-Afari – was born in Tal Afar, a Sunni-majority town in Iraq, in 1976 – before joining the military while Saddam Hussein ruled the country.

Following the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003 and President Bush’s move to disband the country’s military, he found himself locked in jail accused of having links to al-Qaeda.

In 2020, the U.S. doubled the bounty on the new ISIS leader's head to $10 million, as they released this photo of him

In 2020, the U.S. doubled the bounty on the new ISIS leader’s head to $10 million, as they released this photo of him 

Languishing in a cell at Camp Bucca, al-Qurayshi formed a close bond with Baghdadi, who was then fomenting the extremist religious code that would provide the ideological grounding for the death cult that became ISIS.

After his release al-Qurayshi served as a religious commissar and a general sharia judge for al-Qaeda, according to researchers at the S. Rajartnam School of International Studies in Singapore.  

Al-Qurayshi was tasked with establishing an institute for training judges and clergymen in the campus of al-Imam al-Adham College in Mosul, likely in part where ‘The Professor’ nickname came from.  

When ISIS emerged as a splinter group from Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch he changed allegiances, where he became Baghdadi’s enforcer.

Working close to Baghdadi,he was responsible for eliminating anyone who disagreed with his style of leadership, which is where he earned his other nickname, ‘The Destroyer’. 

From there he became the group’s chief policymaker and legislator, known for enforcing its strict brand of Islam and Sharia Law punishments.

Caliphate leader: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated his own suicide vest during the targeted raid on his lair in Syria's Idlib province and killed three of his children in the blast. He is shown in a still from a video released in April, having not been seen since he spoke at the Grand Mosque in Mosul in 2014

Caliphate leader: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated his own suicide vest during the targeted raid on his lair in Syria’s Idlib province and killed three of his children in the blast. He is shown in a still from a video released in April, having not been seen since he spoke at the Grand Mosque in Mosul in 2014

He is thought to have personally welcomed Baghdadi into Mosul in 2014 after ISIS took the city – announcing their presence as the world’s foremost terror group.

It was from the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul that Baghdadi gave a speech announcing the formation of ISIS’s so-called Caliphate.

In capturing Mosul, ISIS had killed thousands of Yazidi residents, and enslaved Yazidi women under the guise of enforcing Sharia law. 

There were disagreements among ISIS leadership about enslaving the Yazidi women, but it was al-Qurayshi led the organization’s more extremist leaders in insisting on it, according to News Lines Magazine.  

President Joe Biden said al-Qurayshi was directly responsible for the prison strike, as well as the mass killings of the Yazidi people in Iraq in 2014.

‘He was responsible for the recent brutal attack on a prison in northeast Syria … He was the driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi people,’ Biden said Thursday. ‘We all remember the gut-wrenching stories, mass slaughters that wiped out entire villages, thousands of women and young girls sold into slavery, rape used as a weapon of war.’

On August 7, 2019 Amaq announced that al-Qurayshi had taken over day-to-day running of the terror group, while Baghdadi concentrated on drumming up religious fervour in the group’s aims.

The selection of al-Qurayshi drummed up debate within ISIS, even reaching its members in prison, over whether he was of Turkmen or Arab origin. The ‘caliph’ of ISIS must be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, therefore an Arab. 

An aerial view of wreckages around the site after an operation carried out by US forces targeting a high ranking jihadist in northern Syria last night

An aerial view of wreckages around the site after an operation carried out by US forces targeting a high ranking jihadist in northern Syria last night

A Syrian man takes a picture of a blood soaked kitchen at the scene of a US anti-terror raid in Atmeh, Idlib

A Syrian man takes a picture of a blood soaked kitchen at the scene of a US anti-terror raid in Atmeh, Idlib

Al-Qurayshi was keen to prove his Arab origin. Until 2020, U.S. and Iraqi officials believed the head of ISIS was a Turkman, which they weaponized to undermine his claim to leadership. Late reports confirmed his Arab descent. 

Al-Qurayshi spent his last days in Idlib province, an area held by insurgent groups hostile to IS.  

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