The elusive leader of ISIS blew up himself, his wife, and their children during a risky predawn raid by helicopter-borne U.S. Special Operations Forces in northwest Syria on Thursday. The attack on the leader of what remains the world’s most dangerous terrorist movement, which was carried out after months of secret planning, led to the death of the third major jihadi leader in a confrontation with U.S. forces in the past decade or so. President Joe Biden said the operation that killed Hajji Abdullah, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, was “testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they hide around the world.” President Barack Obama oversaw the operation that killed the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his hideaway in Pakistan, in 2011. President Donald Trump approved plans that led to the death of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria, in 2019. ISIS is estimated to have as many as twenty thousand jihadis in underground cells still proliferating across the globe, decades after the emergence of jihadism in the nineteen-seventies.
For Biden, the complex raid coincided with his efforts to broker an end to the escalating confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, an ambitious China, fraught negotiations on Iran’s nuclear deal, and a global pandemic. Administration officials said that Biden had been holding lengthy undisclosed briefings on the secret plan to kill or capture Abdullah. The timing is in some ways a political boon to Biden, despite claims by Administration officials that the raid was not meant to send a message to any other nation. Yet Biden’s deep engagement in the process and his order on Tuesday for the strike to begin indicated that—at seventy-nine—he can multitask international crises.
The raid was a coup in the now decades-long campaign to contain, curtail, or eliminate jihadi militants. Abdullah, who met Baghdadi during a stint in the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison, in 2004, had overseen the spread of ISIS factions around the world. Despite the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate in 2019, ISIS cells still carried out attacks from West Africa to southeast Asia, including a major operation that killed Americans at Kabul airport during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, last August. The ISIS leader had also been the driving force behind the most brutal ISIS tactics, including the enslavement and rape of thousands of Yazidi women and girls in Iraq. Kirby called him a “hands-on” leader. Yet Abdullah was so secretive that he never sent video messages or public propaganda to supporters. One of the few known photographs of him was released by the State Department. He relied on couriers to communicate instructions.
Abdullah was one of the last “legacy” leaders among the small corps of jihadis who can claim religious and military credentials, a senior Administration official told me. He was selected, after much internal bickering, “to put a defeated caliphate back together” following the death, also in a self-detonated bomb that killed family members, of Baghdadi, in 2019, Hassan Hassan, a co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” told me. He said that Abdullah “failed, and died without making a single public statement to his followers,” and that ISIS is now “weak and under immense pressure.” The dispersed underground ISIS cells—still estimated to number more than ten thousand in Syria and Iraq—were waiting to hear from Abdullah after the ISIS jailbreak last month. “Instead, they heard about him,” Hassan said. “The news would devastate the group, and make it even harder for a new leader to fill the void.”
As the attack by U.S. forces played out over two hours, Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and senior staff and military officials monitored it in real time from the White House Situation Room. Last December, U.S. intelligence, with help from a mosaic of local sources, had identified Abdullah’s hiding place—in a three-story residential building in northwest Syria—after years of searching for him. To avoid civilian casualties, the Administration opted to dispatch U.S. Special Operations Forces rather than employ missiles or drones to kill the ISIS leader. There was “tremendous tension, just given the number of children” in the multifamily dwelling, a senior Administration official told journalists. The raid came amid growing controversy over U.S. air strikes that have mistakenly killed civilians, both in Afghanistan, during the withdrawal last year, and in Syria, during the campaign against the ISIS caliphate in 2019. U.S. officials spent months planning the operation, at one point working off a tabletop model and doing multiple “physical rehearsals.” Biden described the preparations as “meticulous.”
After landing, U.S. forces used bullhorns to encourage everyone in the building to leave, Kirby said. Several children fled, but Abdullah soon set off the bomb that destroyed his quarters on the third floor. His unnamed deputy and his wife barricaded themselves on the second floor and both opened fire on U.S. forces, according to the Pentagon. They were both killed. After the Americans left, local responders in Syria reported thirteen deaths, including four women and six children. Kirby said that U.S. forces killed nine people—five combatants and four civilians—and that ten civilians, including eight children, were evacuated. Abdullah’s body was identified with fingerprints and later with DNA analysis. But his corpse was left in Syria.
Whatever the short-term victory, jihadism retains a strong ideological appeal among alienated, marginalized, and unemployed young Muslims. In the past, U.S. attacks by air, ground, or sea have only generated new activism, anger, and recruits. “Taking down terrorist leaders has various political and psychological effects negative to that terrorist movement and positive to those fighting terror—but the impact has been tactical, not strategic, in every case,” James F. Jeffrey, the former U.S. special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS who now heads the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, said.
Assassinated leaders are inevitably replaced, experts note. “History has repeatedly shown that killing jihadi leaders—even the most prominent and important among them—won’t kill the movement,” Rita Katz, the executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, told me. “To the contrary, both ISIS and al-Qaeda have endured major leadership killings over the last two decades, only to evolve and expand across the globe.” The deaths of bin Laden, in 2011, and the ISIS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006—whom Katz described as “the two most charismatic and movement-inspiring figures of the global jihad”—didn’t blunt the movement. “Why should we expect the death of a faceless, voiceless figure like Abu Ibrahim to?” Katz said.
Abdullah had been hiding in Atmeh, a town near the Syrian border with Turkey, in a province that has been a stronghold for both Turkey-backed fighters and members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist rebel group originally affiliated with Al Qaeda. A group of men opened fire on one of the U.S. helicopters, a senior Administration official said. Two were killed. The raid followed the largest U.S. operation against ISIS in Syria since the demise of the caliphate, in 2019. American warplanes carried out air strikes in northeast Syria last week after ISIS launched a sophisticated attack on a prison in Hasakah, where more than three thousand members of ISIS were being held. It lasted for about a week. Hundreds of ISIS fighters were killed, according to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which also suffered dozens of losses.
The renewed challenge from ISIS underscores the fact that covert cells still exist across an area of Syria and Iraq about the size of Indiana. There are also more than sixty thousand detainees, mainly women and children, in the Al Hol camp in northern Syria under control of the S.D.F., a militia with no legal authority to determine their fate. Two-thirds are children who U.S. officials fear are being radicalized. Many countries have refused to repatriate their nationals who joined ISIS. A key part of ISIS strategy has been to increase its ranks by breaking out prisoners and detainees. The ISIS threat—from both ruthless leaders and raw recruits—could linger for years.
“I tend to think of high-level leadership strikes or operations as being very necessary but certainly not sufficient for us to achieve our counterterrorism objectives,” Nick Rasmussen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told me. “The removal of a single leader does not in one moment radically alter the trajectory of a group or the nature of the threat environment, much less the course of ‘jihadism’ writ large.” In the wake of Abdullah’s death, ISIS will need to regroup. The line of succession is not clear. The movement reportedly has rival camps. But the long-term impact of the U.S. raid may be only “marginal to modest,” Cole Bunzel, a specialist on Islamist groups at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told me. “The group is prepared for this scenario, and much of the group’s global network does not depend on the advice, input, or direction of the caliph.”