WASHINGTON – Facing criticism for civilian deaths in U.S. airstrikes, President Joe Biden targeted the leader of the Islamic State group on Thursday in an approach — a ground raid by special forces — that was riskier for American troops but intended to be safer for the innocent.
Dozens of U.S. commandoes landed outside Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi's Syrian hideout and warned people in nearby homes to stay inside, U.S. officials said. As one of their first moves, they called out to families living inside the same building as al-Qurayshi. By the time the operation ended, the officials said, 10 civilians had been led to safety.
But the U.S. raid still brought the deaths of women and children. Al-Qurayshi's wife and two children were killed along with the militant leader when he detonated a suicide bomb. A lieutenant of the militant leader and that man's wife also died along with a child, after the pair fired upon U.S. forces, officials said. The deaths from the high-stakes mission highlight the challenge U.S. forces face in targeting violent militants, while bound by ethics and international laws and treaties to try to avoid killing non-combatants.
Biden, speaking from the White House, said he directed the military to take “every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties.”
“Knowing that this terrorist had chosen to surround himself with families, including children, we made a choice to pursue a special forces raid at a much greater risk to our own people rather than target him with an airstrike,” he said. Biden described al-Qurayshi’s decision to blow himself up while surrounded by family members as “desperate cowardice.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon would review the operation.
“We know that al-Qurayshi and others at his compound directly caused the deaths of women and children last night. But, given the complexity of this mission, we will take a look at the possibility our actions may also have resulted in harm to innocent people,” he said in a statement.
U.S. officials reported no American injuries.
California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called for an investigation of the civilian deaths in Thursday's strike, “while keeping in mind the history of ISIS leaders using civilians as human shields.”
By one estimate, that of Brown University's Costs of War project, close to 400,000 civilians have died in fighting since the United States and its allies launched what Americans called their war on terror, in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks.
Military strikes of all kinds have declined dramatically under Biden, according to Airwars, which tracks U.S. attacks.
The number of strikes dropped 54% from 2020 to 2021, a period when the Biden administration was moving toward with what in August became a complete U.S. withdrawal from the 20-year Afghanistan conflict, according to Airwars.
However, the Biden administration has come under criticism for civilian casualties, including during the withdrawal from Kabul in August.
After a bombing claimed by the Islamic State's Afghanistan branch killed U.S. service members and Afghans at the gate to the city’s airport, the Pentagon responded with airstrikes against suspected Islamic State members.
Although U.S. officials defended the actions, it eventually became clear that a final drone strike as Americans completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan killed 10 civilians, including seven children, but no militants. The U.S. has not punished any American for what the Pentagon described as a tragic mistake.
Modern laws and rules of war broadly require militaries to distinguish between combatants and civilians and try to minimize the loss of civilian lives.
Rights advocates and legal experts have faulted successive Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations for their heavy reliance on airstrikes in the fight against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Opponents argue that attacks by air, while minimizing risk to American forces, increases the risks of civilians with the misfortune to be near a U.S. target.
Priyanka Motaparthy, who works on counterterrorism issues at Columbia University’s Human Rights Institute, was heartened that Biden emphasized efforts to limit civilian casualties in his remarks.
Given how details about previous strikes have trickled out over time, she said she’s “cautious about accepting the initial picture as the final one.” But the decision by U.S. forces to warn people in the building “definitely speaks to their work to prevent civilian casualties.”
“Their obligation is to take all feasible precautions,” Motaparthy said.
She said Biden should continue to be outspoken about the need for safeguards in military operations.
“As the commander in chief, he should not just be claiming successes, but he should also be leading reforms,” she said.
Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to give details of the military operation, described what they depicted as painstaking efforts in the leadup to Thursday's strike to reduce the risk to civilians. That included weeks of preparation, including rehearsals of the raid.
Al-Qurayshi lived in a house that also housed multiple families, going outside only to bathe on the roof occasionally, one official said. That meant any airstrike would have all but unavoidably killed women and children and other noncombatants as well.
Given another Islamic State leader's last act in 2019 of blowing himself up with a suicide belt when confronted by U.S. commandoes, planners for Thursday's raid made a point of analyzing whether al-Qurayshi's house would collapse upon all the people inside if he did similar, as he did.
They decided the building would stand.
Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism in President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said ground raids aren’t always safer, given that civilians can be caught in the crossfire.
However, months of preparation, like what took place before Thursday’s raid, can help limit the danger.
“Traditionally when we’ve had time to properly plan operations, that’s when you see the greatest precision, the greatest care for civilian harm,” Hartig said.
Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor contributed to this report.