In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, residents in and around the town of Atmeh in northwest Syria heard the sound of helicopters circling overhead.
Next, witnesses later told reporters, came calls ordering people inside a three-story residential building to surrender followed by gunfire that lasted around two hours.
A US-led coalition was carrying out a raid targeting ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. A bomb killed him and his family in their home near the Turkish border, according to US military officials.
Qurayshi was killed along with about a dozen other people including children and women, in the shelling and clashes that ensued after the US commando raid, according to the Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition-run Syrian Civil Defense, first responders also known as the White Helmets.
The raid was complex and entailed months of planning, collecting intelligence and rehearsal, according to Col. Myles B. Caggins III, who was the spokesperson for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria from August 2019 to September 2020 and is currently a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“These rehearsals take place in the United States or some other secure location and prior to the mission there have to be a variety of clearances to move in the air, on the ground. There are numerous contingencies and backup plans,” he said, adding that this operation was even more complicated given that there are no US or coalition bases in northwest Syria.
But he and other experts say that while Qurayshi’s assassination dealt a “significant blow” to ISIS, it does not spell the end of the terror group that once held large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq.
Qurayshi, 45, was somewhat of an obscure figure. In his short tenure as the leader of ISIS, he never sent out a video or audio message and didn’t appear in public. Qurayshi was from Iraq and he became the leader of ISIS in 2019, after his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was assassinated in a similar US raid.
Last week, from the Roosevelt Room, President Joe Biden described Qurayshi as someone responsible for heinous acts.
“He was the driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi people in northwestern Iraq in 2014. We all remember the gut-wrenching stories, mass slaughters that wiped out entire villages.”
“He was the driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi people in northwestern Iraq in 2014,” Biden said, referring to the minority group. “We all remember the gut-wrenching stories, mass slaughters that wiped out entire villages.”
Caggins was in Erbil, in northern Iraq when Baghdadi was killed. He recalled the local media coverage.
“Every network was covering the Baghdadi raid wall-to-wall and as they covered the Baghdadi raid, they were including footage of when ISIS was tearing across Iraq and Syria,” he said.
A few days later, he met with some local reporters.
“The energy and the questions from the reporters were not just looking for answers, it was expressing on behalf of the community of viewers and listeners that they had the relief and joy that Baghdadi had come to his death.”
Iraqis and Syrians have borne the brunt of the atrocities committed by ISIS.
As of today, the group no longer controls any territory for its so-called caliphate.
Meanwhile, Caggins looks at the demise of Qurayshi with tempered optimism.
“Because the death of any leader of ISIS or terrorist group is a tactical win, but with each one of these wins it’s not time to spike the football. There’s still plenty of work to be done to eliminate ISIS forever.”
“Because the death of any leader of ISIS or terrorist group is a tactical win, but with each one of these wins it’s not time to spike the football. There’s still plenty of work to be done to eliminate ISIS forever,” he said.
Ibrahim al-Marashi, who teaches Middle East history at California State University, San Marcos, agrees that it is too soon to celebrate the defeat of ISIS.
“[ISIS] has branches in Iraq and Syria. It has branches in Afghanistan that conducted a very deadly attack in August. And then, it has branches in North Africa: Egypt, Tunisia, sub-Saharan Africa. About maybe seven affiliates in Africa,” he said. “That doesn’t sound like a defeated insurgent group. That sounds like an insurgent group with still a global reach.”
The killing of Qurayshi comes on the heels of one of ISIS’ biggest and most daring attacks in recent years.
On Jan. 20, the group attempted to release hundreds of suspected ISIS members from a prison in the northeast of Syria. The fighting went on for about a week and ended only after US forces intervened.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, which is in control of the area, eventually managed to secure the prison. The SDF reported 121 deaths, including 40 soldiers, 77 prison staff and 4 civilians.
According to the United Nations, ISIS currently has between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq.
Marashi explained that the group doesn’t have the strength to capture much territory, so it has reverted back to its early days, when it was an underground network.
“[It’s] just simply enduring, and waiting out the chaos. Because the chaos ultimately serves its existence,” he said.
As for who ISIS’ next leader might be, Marashi said it’s hard to say. He expected Qurayshi's appointment because of his previous role as a spokesman for the group. But this time around, the successor is much more opaque.
According to Marashi, ISIS has a council of men who will likely choose the next leader. But long-term development goals for the region — like stability, jobs, and food security — will make it harder for ISIS to recruit and grow.
Assassinating another leader of the group won’t mean the end of ISIS, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. An update was added to this story about the SDF's involvement in the fight against the Jan. prison attack.