There was a sense of relief inside the narrow, cramped Situation Room on Wednesday evening, when an early report came to President Joe Biden from the risky commando mission underway in northeastern Syria. A family living on the first floor of the building being targeted by the U.S. special operations forces, apparently unaware that the top-tier ISIS leader was living upstairs, walked out after hearing orders being barked by the team on the ground, and were briskly led away from what was about to become a gruesome battlefield.
“It was a relief when one of the first reports was that when the team came on site and called everyone to come out, those on the first floor did come out and were led to safety,” said a senior administration official, who described the atmosphere around the President while he watched the raid in shirtsleeves from the basement of the West Wing with Vice President Kamala Harris, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall.
The uninvolved family’s presence was one of the things that made the complex mission hard to plan, the official said. For months, Biden insisted any plan targeting ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi should limit the number of civilians that were vulnerable during the raid. That meant sending in American commandos at night, rather than firing a missile that would demolish the three-story building and, most likely, whoever might be in it.
It also meant having structural engineers working for U.S. intelligence agencies pour over intelligence about the building’s construction and the information American spies had collected on the comings and goings of the families and children living there. Al-Qurayshi himself never went outside except to bathe on the roof, officials said, opting instead to conduct business and communications through couriers.
And yet, even with the President’s specific orders and the elaborate military precautions, there were civilian casualties. Several children living on the third floor were killed, when, according to the U.S. military, al-Qurayshi detonated a bomb that collapsed the roof as the U.S. raid began. Shortly after, al-Qurayshi’s lieutenant living on the second floor and his wife were killed during a firefight with the U.S. special operations assault team.
By the time the operation ended two hours later, officials said, two adults and eight children had been led to safety from the building. The White House acknowledged the deaths of al-Qurayshi’s family members, saying nothing could be done to stop him from murdering them. Photos taken from the scene show a blood-spattered teddy bear and tennis shoes. UNICEF confirmed that at least six children were killed. The Syrian Civil Defense, first-responders in the area also known as the White Helmets, said they recovered the bodies of at least 13 people, including six children and four women, after arriving at the building near the Turkish border after 3 a.m. local time.
The deadly raid comes at a sensitive time for Biden. He has faced withering criticism for civilian harm since an Aug. 29 drone strike in Afghanistan killed 10 people, including seven children, who had no link to terror groups. Biden has since ordered his Administration to review counter-terrorism policies, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a memo last week to senior civilian and military officials at the Pentagon demanding an “action plan” on civilian casualties within 90 days. Austin called protection of civilians vital to U.S. military success and a “moral imperative.”
A new look at lethal force
In the two decades following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, in the conflicts with al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups, the U.S. has taken a very broad view of the legal standards that govern military operations overseas, viewing much of the world from Washington as a battlefield. Drone strikes, special operations raids and other counter-terrorism missions have resulted in hundreds of civilians killed at the hands of the U.S. government in several countries. Brown University’s Costs of War project as many as 387,072 civilians have been killed in the crossfire across various countries since 2001, when the U.S. launched what used to be called the Global War on Terror.
From the first day of his administration, Biden wanted to limit the military’s mistakes in inflicting needless bloodshed. He halted most drone strikes and special operations raids in hotspots like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, ordering commanders to consult the White House on decisions to strike, and initiated a review of when such lethal force should be used.
As he has also sought to limit the U.S. military’s footprint overseas, it has increasingly relied instead on “over-the-horizon” capabilities. Under the approach, targeting information and intelligence on suspected terrorist activity in the Middle East and Africa will derive largely from airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter and images captured by drones circling overhead rather than U.S. and partner forces on the ground.
All of this has led to a decrease in U.S. attacks, according to Airwars, a London-based nonprofit that tracks civilian casualties in war zones, but civilian casualties haven’t been eliminated. The U.S. still relies on making life-or-death- decisions from afar, using drones and other remote intelligence gathering capabilities as the tools of choice to hunt terrorists. Regardless of how rigorous the military studies these procedures, no technology can substitute for having trained eyes on a target to avoid innocent people being killed.
“While a serious Defense Department focus on civilian harm is long overdue and welcome, it’s unclear that this directive will be enough,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s national security project. “What’s needed is a truly systemic overhaul of our country’s civilian harm policies to address the massive structural flaws, likely violations of international law, and probable war crimes that have occurred in the last 20 years.”
Biden reviewed operational plans for weeks
In December, Biden was presented with a tabletop model of the building and options to go after the ISIS leader, who took over the weakened organization after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself during a U.S. raid in 2019. He opted for a helicopter-borne assault rather than risk launching an airstrike that would endanger the lives of the women, children and other uninvolved individuals that intelligence officials knew were present. The intelligence analysis of the building’s structure concluded that even if al-Qurayshi blew himself and his family up on the third floor, the building would not collapse, and there was a chance of being able to prevent harm from coming to the civilians living on the lower floor.
The U.S. commando teams conducted dozens of rehearsals to ensure mission success. Biden gave the final go-ahead for the raid on Tuesday morning during an Oval Office meeting with Secretary Austin and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley that wasn’t on his public schedule.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the President chose an option that put American forces at greater risk in an attempt to limit collateral damage. “The decision, itself, to conduct a raid using special operations forces speaks volumes of the degree to which the president was trying to avoid civilian harm,” Kirby said.
Biden said it was worth taking the extra risk. “Knowing that this terrorist had chosen to surround himself with families, including children, we made a choice to pursue a special forces raid at a much greater risk to our own people rather than target him with an airstrike,” he said during a speech Thursday at the White House.
In the predawn hours in Syria on Wednesday, U.S. helicopters carrying the assault teams approached the town of Atmeh in northwest Syria’s Idlib province. The commandos hopped out in the frigid air and arrived at the white cement home on foot, instructing neighbors to stay inside over a bullhorn and calling out to those living inside al-Qurayshi’s building. “We were conscious of the fact that this is a residential area and there were also children in the building,” one official said. “There were also multiple messages to local components around—this would be civilians and others—to ensure that they knew what was underway and didn’t in some way interfere, unintended or intended.”
Though the troops were able to safely evacuate a family on the first floor of al-Qurayshi’s building, the Americans’ efforts to avoid civilian casualties may have resulted in the opposite effect by apparently alerting al-Qurayshi to their presence. U.S. officials say the ISIS leader detonated a bomb, allegedly eviscerating himself and his family on the building’s top floor. Then, gunfire rang out from the building’s second floor where the leader’s deputy and his wife had barricaded themselves. The special forces team stormed into the building, killed them both and walked out with four children.
As commandos worked to secure the building, one of the helicopters experienced a malfunction. The pilot was able to fly it to a nearby field where it was blown up with explosives. Elsewhere, gunmen began firing on a U.S. helicopter overhead, which resulted in return fire from a U.S. gunship. The town largely controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a local terrorist group that has ties to both al-Qaeda and ISIS. “As we know it at this point,” one official said, “at least two enemies killed in action.”
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