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Biden says ISIS leader died by suicide bomb in 'desperate act of cowardice,' vows to hunt terrorists down

The president gave the final go-ahead for the operation that resulted in the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi on Tuesday, an administration official said.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday said an overnight raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria had resulted in the death of the leader of the Islamic State terrorism group, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in one of the most significant counterterrorism operations of his presidency to date.

"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 the building, he chose to blow himself up," Biden said at the White House.

"Last night's operation took a major terrorist threat off the battlefield and has sent a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you," he said. "Once again today, we continue our unceasing effort to keep the American people safe and strengthen the security of our allies and partners around the world."

During the operation, al-Qurayshi reportedly triggered an explosion that killed himself along with his wife and two children, a blast so powerful that bodies were blown outside of the house, a senior administration official said. A deputy of al-Qurayshi and his wife were also killed after attacking U.S. forces, the official said. There were no U.S. casualties.

Al-Qurayshi was named ISIS leader in October 2019 after his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S. raid in the same region earlier that month. U.S. officials said he was directly overseeing ISIS activities across Iraq and Syria, and the group was seeking to reconstitute under his leadership. Biden said al-Qurayshi was responsible for a recent attack on a prison in Syria holding ISIS fighters and was a driving force behind the genocide of thousands of Yazidis in Iraq in 2014.

“We anticipate that this is going to lead to disruption within ISIS,” the official said of al-Qurayshi's death. “He’s really one of the few remaining, shall we call them legacy leaders, and so this is a continued push that has been underway for quite some time to continue to remove leadership elements of ISIS.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said al-Quaryashi's death was confirmed with fingerprint and DNA analysis.

The operation was months in the making, with Biden regularly updated over the course of the planning, including a detailed briefing in December that laid out where al-Qurayshi was hiding and the complexities of carrying out the operation given the civilians living in the house, the official said.

On Tuesday morning, Biden gave the final go-ahead for the operation, which lasted two hours, and monitored developments in real-time Wednesday night in the Situation Room, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and members of his national security team, until the team of U.S. special forces had left the site.

Biden said the operation was designed to minimize civilian casualties, with U.S. forces choosing to conduct a raid, putting the U.S. troops in greater harm, as opposed to an airstrike, due to intelligence that indicated civilians were also living in the building. One family was evacuated prior to the raid, and four children were removed from the site after the raid, the official said.

"Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more," Biden said. "Our forces carried out the operation with their signature preparation and precision, and I directed the Department of Defense to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties."

U.S. officials had assessed before the raid that if al-Qurayshi used a similar tactic as his predecessor and detonated explosives on the third floor where he was staying, it wouldn’t cause the entire building to collapse and kill others on the lower floors. All of the casualties at the site were because of the actions of al-Qurayshi, the official said.

The raid was said to have killed 13 people, including women and children, according to local residents and first responders. U.S. officials didn’t confirm that figure.

Pentagon spokesman Kirby said U.S. forces had successfully evacuated ten people, including eight children, from the building, but acknowledged at least three children were killed during the raid. They were al-Qurayshi's two children, who were killed in his suicide blast on the third floor, and another child on the second floor, who was apparently killed during a firefight between the ISIS lieutenant and his wife and the U.S. forces.

Kirby said two people were also killed outside the building, part of a "small group of individuals that approached the compound" that were "appropriately deemed as hostile."

A U.S. official told NBC News that a military helicopter experienced a maintenance issue during the operation. It set down safely at least a mile away from the objective, but was deemed unsafe to fly back and was detonated on site, the official said.

Biden marked the victory in U.S. efforts against ISIS with a brief address from the White House on Thursday, but it was unclear if the White House would seek to leverage the same type of political capital from the military achievement as former President Donald Trump did with the killing of al-Qurayshi's predecessor, al-Baghdadi.

Trump would often bring up the killing of al-Baghdadi as an applause line at campaign rallies and touted the military achievement in campaign ads. A dog injured in the al-Baghdadi raid became a mini-celebrity among Trump's supporters, and the then-president brought the dog to the White House for an event.

Asked if any dogs were involved in the al-Qurayshi raid, Kirby said, "I do not know."