Trump had it right when he decided to reduce our presence in the Middle East. He understood however we need enough remaining military resources to avoid the kind of catastrophe Biden suffered in Afghanistan.
Lessons of an Antiterror Success Against Islamic State
Good thing Trump didn’t go through with pulling out of Syria.
By The Editorial Board
Updated Feb. 3, 2022 9:24 pm ET
Review & Outlook: With the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi comes a valuable reminder that the threat of Islamic extremism hasn’t gone away. Images: AFP/Getty Images/White House/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly
U.S. special forces staged an overnight raid in northwest Syria Thursday that ended in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The world is now a slightly better place, and the lessons of the successful operation are worth recounting.
Administration officials who briefed the press said Hajji Abdullah, as al-Qurayshi was known, detonated a suicide bomb and killed members of his own family as U.S. troops approached. His ISIS predecessor killed himself in the same way in 2019 rather than be captured, so the U.S story is plausible.
The operation was certainly high-risk and it’s a relief no Americans were killed. One reason President Biden may have ordered the raid, rather than dispatch a missile from afar, is the collateral damage from the mistaken drone strike in the final days of the U.S. retreat in Afghanistan. That strike killed numerous innocents, and the White House no doubt wanted to avoid similar headlines. The women and children who died this week did so at the hand of the jihadist, according to U.S. officials.
One lesson is the importance of maintaining the forward deployment of U.S. counterterror forces. Donald Trump came close to withdrawing from Syria—and it’s fortunate he changed his mind. As of last month some 900 U.S. troops were stationed in Syria with another 2,500 in Iraq. Their mission is to help local forces prevent an ISIS resurgence, and their presence means that antiterror operations needn’t rely on “over the horizon” capability as we now must in Afghanistan.
Another lesson is the benefit of local allies on the ground. U.S. officials praised the Syrian Democratic Forces as “critical, vital enablers for operations like this.” That probably included intelligence from months of searching for and then monitoring Hajji Abdullah at his safe house. We wish we now had such allies against ISIS and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
ISIS lost its physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq nearly three years ago, but the group and its affiliates haven’t gone away. ISIS terrorists carried out 2,705 attacks with more than 8,000 casualties around the world last year, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. It has dramatically increased attacks in Afghanistan, where it clashes with the ruling Taliban, but the organization also remains active in Iraq and Syria.
Hajji Abdullah supervised these operations from his Syrian residence, communicating by courier. His demise will disrupt their operations, though no doubt new leaders will emerge in this long war. The temptation is to say the war against radical Islam is unwinnable so why keep fighting it?
But by keeping jihadists on defense abroad, we reduce their ability to plot attacks against the U.S. homeland. We know what can happen when the plotters feel unthreatened. Mr. Biden’s chaotic and needless Afghanistan withdrawal thrilled radicals around the world and may still lead to renewed terror attacks. All the more reason to welcome this week’s operation against one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.