Raid on Terrorist Leader Kills More Civilians

The American way of war kills a lot of noncombatants.


WSJ (“U.S. Special Forces Raid Syrian Site in Search of Terrorist Leader“):

U.S. special operations forces carried out a combat operation to kill or capture a high-level terrorist in northwest Syria along the Turkish border, in a mission that included Apache gunships, airstrikes and drones, according to U.S. officials and accounts on social media.

“U.S. Special Operations forces under the control of U.S. Central Command conducted a counterterrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria,” said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby in a statement issued early Thursday. “The mission was successful. There were no U.S. casualties.”

The Pentagon didn’t provide any additional information nor would officials confirm the identity of the terrorist leader or whether the individual was killed or captured.

President Biden is expected to address the military operation Thursday morning, U.S. officials said.

The special forces, in conjunction with other troops, raided a site in the Atmeh area in Syria’s Idlib province for more than two hours, reportedly resulting in multiple deaths and the destruction of some structures, according to eyewitness accounts filtered through social media. U.S. troops exchanged fire with enemy forces on the ground, according to those social-media reports.

At least 13 people were killed, including six children and four women, as a result of clashes in connection with the U.S. raid, Syrian civil-defense group the White Helmets said on its Facebook page. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the people were killed in the raid or in subsequent clashes.


The operation was in the planning stages for at least the past several days, U.S. officials said. Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East, was expected to appear in person at a conference in Washington on Thursday. The organization changed his participation earlier this week to virtual remarks, so he could remain at Central Command’s headquarters in Tampa, Fla., according to people familiar with the matter. By late Wednesday, the general’s staff had pulled him out of the conference altogether, according to officials with the Middle East Institute think tank, where he was expected to appear.

Charles Lister, a Syria specialist at the Middle East Institute, said that based on conversations he had had with individuals in the area and videos posted on social media the raid began about 1 a.m. local time when two or three helicopters landed in the Atmeh area—where there are several camps for internally displaced people—and surrounded a residential building. Using a loudspeaker, U.S. troops demanded that women and children vacate the building, he said.

The target of the raid would have to be a significant individual or individuals given the firepower that U.S. forces brought to the fight and the risks involved, he said.

The area of northwest Syria where the raid took place is nominally under the control of Turkey, but the de facto power is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group and former al Qaeda affiliate that is now hostile to both al Qaeda and its rival, Islamic State. Al Qaeda has accused the jihadist group of helping facilitate U.S. drone strikes against its personnel, Mr. Lister said.


The raid and reports of civilian casualties come less than a week after the Pentagon issued revised rules meant to reduce the number of innocent people killed when the U.S. military carries out such operations.

Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a new directive designed to limit civilian casualties as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the military’s policies and practices.

The U.S. military has come under increased scrutiny in recent months for not doing more to avoid killing civilians during operations. Last year, the Pentagon was forced to admit that an airstrike it carried out on a car in Kabul was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 people, including seven children. But the Pentagon took no disciplinary action against the military officials involved in the errant attack, which the U.S. military initially defended as a “righteous” strike that killed people preparing to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Reports from NYT (“Reports of Civilian Casualties as U.S. Raid in Syria Appears to Target Qaeda Leader“) and WaPo (“At least a dozen killed, including children, after U.S. raid in northern Syria, first responders say“) put the civilian casualties at the top rather than the bottom.

Who the target was or whether has was killed in the raid is unclear. Presumably, since the mission was described as “successful,” the answer to the second question is Yes.

My first reaction to the story, before reading of the noncombatant losses, was that “Apache gunships, airstrikes and drones” are not typically associated with a special operations raid. It’s rather the opposite of stealth. But it is consistent with the American style of combat, which uses airpower—increasingly, remotely piloted ones—as much as possible to minimize losses. It was a practice that I was immensely grateful for as a ground soldier in the first Gulf War 32 years ago. But, of course, that was a traditional war: military forces fighting other military forces far away from noncombatants.

Translating that method to counterterrorism makes “collateral damage” all but unavoidable. The very nature of the enterprise means that terrorist leaders are likely to be living among civilians, often with their wives and children. Killing them is hard to square with traditional just war notions like proportionality.

By all accounts, the SOF guys who went in were blaring, in the local language, warnings for women and children to evacuate. I’m sure they took other reasonable precautions to avoid killing noncombatants. But air to ground missiles fired to soften the target ahead of the raid are far less discriminating.

UPDATE (0803): President Biden has announced that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the Islamic State leader who replaced Abu Bakr al-Baghdad after he was killed in an October 2019 strike, was killed in the raid. That may well explain why so much firepower was considered justified in this operation.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    President Biden has announced that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the Islamic State leader who replaced Abu Bakr al-Baghdad after he was killed in an October 2019 strike, was killed in the raid.

    Have they actually said this? I assume he was killed and the WH is just being unnecessarily euphemistic, but all the statements I saw were using this “removed from the battlefield” wording that didn’t make it clear if he had been killed or if he’d been captured alive and taken somewhere.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    A later NYT report mentioned that a bomb was detonated by someone in the Qurayshi organization.

    Mr. Biden said in a statement that the terrorist leader, identified by ISIS as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed. A senior administration official said Mr. al-Qurayshi died at the beginning of the operation when he exploded a bomb that killed him and members of his own family, including women and children.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    CNN just ran a first person account from a neighbor of the house who says that helicopters landed and then, through an Arabic translator, they pleaded for 30 minutes for the women and children to come out. Small arms fire broke out then ceased, and they pleaded some more before finally giving up and destroying the place. Old Abu is quite the hero.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve decried what I call “Israeli Military Ethics” – “We knew the Hellfire missile would kill innocent bystanders in the adjacent apartments, but we only intended to kill the one terrorist, so our hands are clean.” But it is sounding like this wasn’t an example of that.

  5. Kathy says:

    At least no one says “surgical strike” anymore.

    All wars and military actions have the potential to kill noncombatants. The question is whether the target or objective is worth the deaths of people not directly involved in the fight.

  6. Gustopher says:

    By all accounts, the SOF guys who went in were blaring, in the local language, warnings for women and children to evacuate. I’m sure they took other reasonable precautions to avoid killing noncombatants.

    Unless they are doing this in a frequency only women and children can hear, I don’t see how this can be announced early enough for women and children to evacuate while not tipping off the men.

    I suspect it it closer to the police knocking on the door immediately before smashing it in to “comply” with a no “no knock warrants” order.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    The 100,000 dead civilians in Tokyo, the 70,000 from Hiroshima, and the 40,000 each from Nagasaki, Hamburg and London all wondering (post mortem) what the uproar is about.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Oh, for sure. But we have raised expectations over the last 30-odd years of making war like a video game, with a lot of surgical strikes in which only bad guys die.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    I’ve whined about this for many years. Wars kill. It’s kind of the definition of war.

    I’m not a pacifist, there are situations where dead civilians are a price we have to pay, a burden of guilt we have to take on. But I would prefer a world in which, on the brink of an anticipated war, we made it clear that there would be orphans and widows and children with their legs blown off. We should not ‘sell’ war with bullshit about surgical strikes and ‘home by Christmas’ lies.

    ETA: While we’re at it, maybe we could also drop the lies about how well we’d care for returning soldiers. We don’t, no one ever does.

  10. inhumans99 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Hah, the good old “eyewitness” account, which as anyone who has watched one of the billion police procedural dramas to have aired over the past 50 years can tell you, is oftentimes some of the most inaccurate information an officer actually receives regarding an incident that just took place.

    Could it be that the explosion he heard after 30 minutes was the “alleged” terrorist blowing himself up? Could have indeed been what he heard.

    Even if this terrorist was living in a cave in the middle of nowhere the past few years, I am sure he has become aware of the fact that if captured he might end up at a CIA black site, so he too can enjoy being water-boarded hundreds of times over the course of several days, having ice cold water sprayed/poured on him in an already cold room, no mattress to sleep on, loud music blaring at all hours, not even a bucket to piss in, etc. Yikes!!

    Yes, going all suicide bomber and taking yourself and your family/neighbors in the building out is technically the cowards way out but given the alternative I can see how one might say screw it, and press the button on the detonator attached to your suicide vest.

    Just thinking of being in this guys position if I was captured and held in a cargo container in the middle of the ocean is enough to give me the willies and I need to stop thinking about it so I do not give myself nightmares. I would not want to be caught in the clutches of the CIA.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    If my choice was between Guantanamo and killing my family I’d never be able to call myself a man again if I didn’t walk out the door with my hands up. Or failing that, if he didn’t want to be waterboarded (few people do) he could have walked out with an AK and commit suicide-by-SEAL. He was a contemptible coward.

  12. Not the IT Dept. says:

    I’m remembering – just barely – what I think was a Star Trek episode. Team Enterprise lands on a planet with two sides at constant war. But they’ve “evolved” so that it’s some kind of computer simulation, and when one side “loses”, they’re told how many of their citizens need to be zapped into oblivion in some kind of machine. Team E destroys the computer that runs the war. Both sides are horrified: now war will be painful and bloody like it used to be, which they created the computer program to get around. Team E says: exactly, now you have an incentive to make peace with each other.

    We really don’t remember what war is like in this country; it’s something that happens over there, far away, and other people pay the price. It never occurs to us that it doesn’t have to be that way, and someday we might get the biggest surprise of our lives – or deaths.

  13. just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: For a person for whom the family is understood to be chattel property, the lives of his wife/wives and children may not weigh as much as they do for you. I have no reasonable expectation that I understand what’s in his mind at all.

  14. Gustopher says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: The assumption of that episode is that the horrors of war would make the two sides turn away. I offer 9/11 as a counter-example — one strike on American soil repaid hundreds of times over across the entirety of the middle east.

  15. Kathy says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    The last real widespread war fought inside the continental US was the Civil War, over 150 years ago. Hawaii was bombed by the Japanese in WWII, as were some islands in Alaska and other Us possessions in the Pacific. I’m not sure how to count the Philippines, which would be the one major nation associated with America that was invaded in WWII.

    And you meant Team Kirk, of course 😉

  16. Not the IT Dept. says:

    9/11 and Pearl Harbor are the great examples of times when war came to us. And we totally lost our minds about it. Imagine if those times were how wars usually worked for us.

  17. dazedandconfused says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Scattered in the Star Trek catalog is some pretty good science fiction, albeit widely so. Stuff that Rod Serling would’ve been proud of. The thought struck me just the other day in the Whoopi mess, as her muddled thought was analogous to the episode in which they encountered aliens at war with each other because one type was black on the right and white on the left, and the other side had the condition reversed.

  18. Mister Bluster says:

    @dazedandconfused:..aliens at war with each other…

    Frank Gorshin. Lou Antonio
    Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (1969)

    Just noticed that their hair looks quite Caucasian.