Did killing ISIS' leader Qurayshi make the U.S. safer?


Did killing ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi make the U.S. safer?

In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, U.S. Special Forces in northwest Syria launched a highly risky operation to capture or kill ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. According to the official U.S. accounts of the raid, Qurayshi blew himself up rather than risk capture. At least 13 people were killed at the scene, according to first responders, including women and children.

Qurayshi was an enigmatic figure, about whom relatively little is known. Under his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who also blew himself up during a raid in 2019, ISIS could for a time claim a self-declared “caliphate” the size of Great Britain. Today, the group has been driven underground, though it’s still capable of launching large-scale operations, as shown by a weeklong battle for control of a prison in northeast Syria last month.

The raid also comes in a period of heightened public scrutiny of the civilian toll of U.S. counterterrorism, following a botched drone strike that killed 10 civilians in Kabul, Afghanistan, last August and a string of revelations from an investigation into U.S. airstrikes by the New York Times.

To help make sense of what we know about this raid so far, and what it means for the future of ISIS and the United States’ counterterrorism strategy, we spoke with Robert Grenier, former CIA head of counterterrorism and a Grid contributor. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Grid: Listening to the descriptions of the raid that came out Thursday, are there any big questions you still have about how this was carried out or anything that doesn’t add up for you?

Robert Grenier: I think it’s all pretty straightforward. The thing that struck me is that this is a textbook example of how you should do targeted terrorism raids, as opposed to that drone strike that took place in Kabul last year as the evacuation took place. That was a textbook example of how not to do it.

The big reason why that horrible mistake was made was because, frankly, the U.S. was in a panic for fear that ISIS would strike again, and I’m sure we were terribly concerned that we might miss an opportunity to forestall another attack, and they would then be blamed for it. But there wasn’t nearly enough time to actually work up that target.

In this instance, they apparently had months to work up the target. When I say work up the target, I mean that I’m sure that they would have been maintaining some level of drone surveillance over a lengthy period of time. They would know the pattern of movement, who was on the first floor, the second floor, the third floor.

And by conducting the raid using commandos rather than an airstrike, they were able to evacuate civilians to the maximum extent possible and avoid some of the collateral casualties that would otherwise most likely have resulted.


G: There were still civilian casualties though, including, reportedly, a number of children. Is that just inevitable in this type of operation?

RG: It tends to be. It’s true that initial reports from the battlefield are always wrong, but it appears that the majority of the civilian casualties took place as a result of the bomb that went off on the third floor, and Qurayshi was willing to sacrifice both himself and his family rather than risk capture.

G: In the last couple of years, particularly since President Joe Biden came in, we’ve seen a lot fewer counterterrorism strikes around the world, both drone strikes and these kinds of Special Forces raids. What does this one tell you about the Biden administration’s approach to fighting terrorism?

RG: I think that this is an example of counterterrorism as narrowly and properly defined. This was a classic terrorist leader and a classic decapitation strike, as opposed — to use a starkly different example — to the pattern of drone strikes that we saw in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the height of the U.S. presence there. That was using drones and other counterterrorism methods against an insurgent foe, rather than a terrorist foe. Now, with the U.S. military presence removed from Afghanistan, we’re seeing the U.S. revert to classic counterterror as opposed to counterinsurgency.

G: Qurayshi wasn’t as well known internationally as his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. How influential a figure was he actually? How big a deal is it that he’s been “taken off the battlefield,” as Biden put it?

RG: Not as significant as one might otherwise expect. And that’s almost by design. ISIS are very much ruled by their ideas, their ideology, the inspiration that they’re able to provide, as opposed to charismatic leadership. Clearly this fellow didn’t set himself up as a charismatic leader. He may not have been capable of it, since he was very much isolated for obvious operational reasons.

That said, the ability of U.S. forces to track this fellow down and to take him out is obviously a bit of an object lesson for others and will make them even more cautious than they otherwise are. But this is not going to cause ISIS to go away by any means.

G: What about globally? Was Qurayshi the operational leader of the ISIS groups in, say, Afghanistan or in North Africa? How much coordination is there between ISIS in Syria and in other countries?

RG: One of the things that I’ve seen, which kind of makes me scratch my head a little bit, in some of the reaction is people making the link between what the U.S. has done in Syria and concerns about Afghanistan and the ISIS presence there. That’s kind of a non sequitur.

I don’t think that there is a great deal, if any, operational control. I think that this is a matter of adherence to a similar doctrine and a desire by these groups to brand themselves in a particular way.


G: So how much of a threat is ISIS today?

RG: ISIS still clearly remains a threat, whether we’re in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Africa, but they are a sort of diminishing threat. One of the things I like to say in terrorism, as in other aspects of life, is that nothing succeeds like success. And clearly, lately, they’ve not been successful.

That said, they remain a threat and something that ought not to be ignored. I think it’s wise for us to keep troops in northeastern Syria and to remain engaged in this, because there is still the possibility they could stage a breakout in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere.

It’s easy to think of these things as being distant, remote, nothing that really affects Americans. But that could change. I think of the attacks in Paris that took place back in November of 2015. I’ll never forget the reaction of then-French President [François] Hollande. He called it an “act of war.” And I remember thinking that was one of the more ridiculous comments by a national leader in quite some time, because the reason that ISIS launched these attacks in Paris was not because it was part of their doctrine. It was somewhat against their doctrine. It was because they wanted to discourage the French from continuing their airstrikes in Iraq. So, yes, this was an act of war, and it was in response to French acts of war.

So, now, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility for analogous attacks in the future. If the next leader of ISIS were to decide to launch a campaign to discourage the Americans from maintaining the rather small presence that we currently have in northeastern Syria, he might want to attack us a lot closer to home.


G: So, in theory, the reason we’re fighting ISIS at all is that we’re afraid they could attack the U.S. or American interests. But it sounds like you’re saying that strikes like the one Thursday actually make these attacks more likely?

RG: The short answer to that is yes. ISIS, unprovoked, is not particularly interested in attacking the U.S. It would be more likely to attack the Russians, because of their active support of Bashar al-Assad, all things being equal. They are not like al-Qaeda. For al-Qaeda, it was a matter of doctrine to attack the West in order to induce them to leave the Middle East. That is not the ISIS approach. Absent our engagement in the areas where they are active, and which they aspire to control, ISIS would not be inclined to attack us in the homeland. If anything, we are giving them a greater motivation to attack us in the homeland now.

Now, I don’t pose that there’s a suggestion that we ought not to be engaged in those areas. It would not be in our interest to see ISIS become, in the future, what it was in 2014 or ’15.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.