On Thursday morning, President Joe Biden made a celebratory announcement: Hajji Abdullah, the leader of the terrorist group Islamic State, died in a raid by US special operations troops in northwestern Syria. The raid, Biden said, was “a testament to America’s reach and ability 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 former head of Islamic State, 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 surprisingly bold attack last month.
In the city of Hasakah in northeast Syria, two suicide bombers with car bombs struck near al-Sinaa prison, clearing the way for a force of Islamic State fighters who seem to have numbered in the hundreds. The insurgents stormed the prison, in an attempt to free some three thousand Islamic State prisoners, who were under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed Kurdish militia. The prison is located in an urban area, yet the Islamic State The force managed to pass SDF checkpoints, suggesting that the insurgents could have infiltrated the Kurdish ranks. Once in place, they attacked the prison from several directions.
The siege, split between periods of combat and negotiation, lasted seven days and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. Islamic State seemed to have a goal beyond the release of its imprisoned fighters. Al-Sinaa detained about seven hundred boys – mostly between the ages of ten and seventeen – who were brought up in Islamic State territory, and are sometimes referred to in jihadist 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 negotiations the insurgents placed particular emphasis on boys, trying to trade them for Kurdish prisoners who Islamic State took.
In the end, American air power helped the SDF retake the prison, and more than three hundred people linked to Islamic State were killed. But the commandos managed to eject a significant number of their comrades, and while some of the children were recaptured, not all of them were. It was by far the most ambitious attack that Islamic State has led since being driven from his former stronghold, the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz, two years ago. “It was a bit of a wake-up call,” Charles Lister, director of counterterrorism at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told me. “Slowly but surely, Islamic State recovers.
Since the US military largely left Syria in 2019, Islamic State had plenty of room to regroup and recruit. In January, less than a thousand American soldiers were still assisting the SDF in northeast Syria; elsewhere, the United States has even less visibility. “From an intelligence perspective, Syria is a black hole,” Cafarella said. Two years ago, the United Nations estimated that there were more than ten thousand active Islamic State fighters in the area, but the actual number is uncertain. In the vast ungoverned spaces that straddle the Iraq-Syria border, they have plenty of places to hide. “We don’t have the forces to pressure them through Syria and Iraq.”
Eleven years after the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sparked a catastrophic civil war, Syria remains a fractured country dominated by warring militias and armies. The Turkish army confronts its Kurdish enemies; Russian and Iranian troops are working to bolster al-Assad’s regime, while a range of Islamist groups are fighting it. Members of one such group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, fired on a US helicopter during this week’s raid, before the Americans returned fire, killing at least two of them.
Especially in such a volatile region, any attack on an insurgent leader is likely to inspire others to rally to his cause. On Thursday, two senior Biden administration officials told reporters that the strike on Abdullah took months of careful planning, in part to avoid killing citizens. Abdullah had taken up residence on the top two floors of a building he never left, communicating by post. An ordinary Syrian family occupied the ground floor. Planners feared that Abdullah, if trapped, would detonate a bomb that would take the building with him.
The effort to avoid excessive losses appears to have been only partially successful. When the Americans surrounded the apartment, the downstairs family moved to safety, moments before Abdullah detonated a bomb, possibly on his person and possibly inside of the appartment. 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 Islamic State down? Probably not much. If the past is any guide, a new commander will take his place, and it may not be long before Islamic State is again capable of such deadly action as the prison raid. Neither the Biden administration nor its European allies show the slightest appetite to return to Syria to halt a further downturn. “Counterterrorism operations like this can disrupt an insurgency, but not defeat an insurgency,” Cafarella said.