ISIS After the American Strike

On Thursday morning, President Joe Biden made a celebratory announcement: Hajji Abdullah, the leader of the terrorist group ISIS, had died in a raid by American special-operations troops in northwestern Syria. The raid, Biden said, was a “testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide.” But it’s not clear that killing an insurgent leader disables his group. The previous leader of ISIS, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was killed two years ago, in another American raid. His successor, Hajji Abdullah, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, carried out a startlingly audacious attack just last month.

In the city of Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, two suicide car bombers struck near the al-Sinaa prison, opening the way for a force of ISIS fighters that appears to have numbered in the hundreds. The insurgents stormed the prison, in an attempt to free some three thousand ISIS prisoners, who were under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish militia backed by the United States. The prison is situated in an urban area, and yet the ISIS force managed to slip past S.D.F. checkpoints, suggesting that insurgents could have infiltrated Kurdish ranks. Once in place, they attacked the prison from several directions.

The siege, divided between periods of combat and negotiation, lasted seven days and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. ISIS seemed to have a goal beyond freeing its imprisoned fighters. Al-Sinaa held some seven hundred boys—most of them between the ages of ten and seventeen—who were raised in ISIS territory, and are sometimes referred to in jihadi literature as “the Cubs of the Caliphate.” Jennifer Cafarella, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington, told me that, during the negotiations, the insurgents placed special emphasis on the boys, trying to swap them for Kurdish prisoners that ISIS had taken.

In the end, American airpower helped the S.D.F. retake the prison, and more than three hundred people tied to ISIS were killed. But the commandos succeeded in springing a significant number of their comrades, and, though some of the kids were recaptured, not all of them were. It was by far the most ambitious attack that ISIS has carried out since being forced out of its previous stronghold, the town of Baghouz, in eastern Syria, two years ago. “This was a bit of a wake-up call,” Charles Lister, the director of counterterrorism at the Middle East Institute, in Washington, told me. “Slowly but surely, ISIS is recovering.”

Since the American military largely departed from Syria, in 2019, ISIS has had ample space to regroup and recruit. As of January, fewer than a thousand American troops were still assisting the S.D.F. in northeastern Syria; elsewhere, the U.S. has even less visibility. “From an intelligence standpoint, Syria is a black hole,” Cafarella said. Two years ago, the United Nations estimated that there were more than ten thousand active ISIS fighters in the area, but the actual number is uncertain. In the vast ungoverned spaces that straddle the border between Iraq and Syria, they have plenty of places to hide. “We don’t have the forces to put pressure on them across Syria and Iraq.”

Eleven years after the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad kicked off a catastrophic civil war, Syria remains a fractured country, dominated by warring militias and armies. The Turkish Army contends with its Kurdish enemies; Russian and Iranian troops work to bolster al-Assad’s rule, while an array of Islamist groups fight against it. Members of one such group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, fired on a U.S. helicopter in this week’s raid, before the Americans returned fire, killing at least two of them.

Especially in such an unsettled region, any attack on an insurgent leader risks inspiring others to take up his cause. On Thursday, two senior Biden Administration officials told reporters that the strike on Abdullah had required months of painstaking planning, in part to avoid killing citizens. Abdullah had installed himself on the top two floors of an apartment building, from which he never ventured out, communicating by couriers. An ordinary Syrian family occupied the ground floor. The planners were concerned that Abdullah, if trapped, might detonate a bomb that took the building down with him.

The effort to avoid excess casualties appears to have been only partly successful. When the Americans surrounded the apartment, the family on the ground floor ran to safety, moments before Abdullah detonated a bomb—possibly on his person and possibly inside the apartment. The explosion destroyed the entire third floor, killing Abdullah and others, including his wife and several children. On the second floor, one of Abdullah’s lieutenants and the lieutenant’s wife resisted capture and were killed by American forces. At least six children appeared to have died in the fight, Lister said.

Will Abdullah’s death slow ISIS down? Probably not much. If the past is any guide, a new commander will take his place, and it may not be long before ISIS is once again capable of an action as lethal as the prison raid. Neither the Biden Administration nor its European allies show any appetite for going back into Syria to stop another retrenchment. “Counterterrorism operations like this can disrupt an insurgency, but not defeat an insurgency,” Cafarella said.

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