Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Look out for special editions of this newsletter Feb. 16-19 as SitRep heads to Germany to give you behind-the-scenes looks and breaking news from The Munich Security Conference, one of the most consequential gatherings of world leaders.

Inside the U.S. Commando Raid Targeting the Islamic State Leader

Islamic State leader kills himself during a raid by elite U.S. forces.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A military device lies on the ground in Syria.
A military device lies on the ground in Syria.
A military device lies on the ground following an overnight raid by U.S. special operations forces against suspected jihadis in Atmeh, Syria, which left at least 13 people dead, including three civilians, on Feb. 3. Muhammad Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie here. Jack is taking some well-deserved time off this week. Before we get started, spare a thought for the International Space Station, which NASA announced is retiring by 2031 by crashing into the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: The leader of the Islamic State is killed during a U.S. military operation, the United States plans to deploy more troops to Eastern Europe amid its showdown with Russia, and drama at the United Nations ignites over the Beijing Olympics.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie here. Jack is taking some well-deserved time off this week. Before we get started, spare a thought for the International Space Station, which NASA announced is retiring by 2031 by crashing into the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: The leader of the Islamic State is killed during a U.S. military operation, the United States plans to deploy more troops to Eastern Europe amid its showdown with Russia, and drama at the United Nations ignites over the Beijing Olympics.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Top Terrorist Killed in U.S. Raid in Syria

U.S. military forces targeted the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group in an overnight raid in northwestern Syria, prompting the leader to kill himself with a suicide bomb, U.S. President Joe Biden announced in a speech on Thursday morning. Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, head of the Islamic State since late 2019, was considered one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. 

Qurayshi, also known as Hajji Abdullah, took control of the group after its first leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died during a similar U.S. raid in October 2019. 

Biden said all U.S. service members returned safely from the raid, which took place in the town of Atmeh in northwest Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border. Local media outlets and humanitarian organizations reported that 13 people were killed in the raid, including women and children.

Senior U.S. administration officials said all civilian casualties were due to Qurayshi blowing up himself and his family, including his children, as the commandos closed in. (Although some analysts are taking these early assessments with a grain of salt; the U.S. government does not have a stellar track record on accurately reporting collateral damage from its military operations in the Middle East.)

Behind the scenes. The raid was months in the making, according to two senior administration officials. Biden was briefed on the plan a month ago and gave the final greenlight to move forward with the operation on Tuesday. The officials said the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group, played a key role in helping U.S. forces carry out the operation. 

Qurayshi holed himself up on the third floor of a building with multiple families that had nothing to do with the Islamic State, effectively using civilians as a human shield, and never left the building, the senior officials said. This led Biden to opt for deploying troops via a helicopter-borne assault rather than launching an airstrike to minimize civilian casualties.

The raid. The raid lasted two hours, and U.S. service members were able to safely evacuate some families and children from the building and surrounding area, the senior U.S. officials said. During the raid, Qurayshi blew up himself and his family, including his children, to avoid capture, the senior U.S. officials said. One of Qurayshi’s lieutenants and his wife barricaded themselves on the second floor and were also killed in the ensuing clash with U.S. forces. 

Although there were no American casualties, the operation didn’t go completely smoothly, the U.S. officials conceded. A U.S. helicopter involved in the raid experienced mechanical issues, and after landing a distance away from the site, U.S. forces destroyed the helicopter before leaving the area. 

Toward the end of the two-hour operation, local forces engaged in “hostile action” with U.S. troops. From there, U.S. forces “took action that resulted in, as we know it at this point, at least two enemies killed in action,” one of the U.S. officials said. 

The area where the raid took place is largely controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a local terrorist organization with ties to al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Who was Qurayshi? Little is known about Qurayshi, a relatively obscure figure compared to his predecessor, Baghdadi. One of the U.S. officials described him as a “driving force” behind the genocide of the Yazidi minority group at the height of the Islamic State’s power. While Baghdadi was in power, Qurayshi was known for running many of the group’s external operations.

What now for the Islamic State? Qurayshi’s death deals a blow to the terrorist group, which has been trying to regroup itself after losing its caliphate that once controlled vast swathes of Syria and Iraq. After many top Islamic State leaders and deputies were captured or killed during the yearslong U.S.-led operation against the group, Qurayshi was one of the few remaining legacy leaders, and his death leaves an uncertain future.

However, don’t expect the Islamic State to disband overnight. Numerous studies have shown that taking out terrorist leaders has mixed results.


Let’s Get Personnel

The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a nomination hearing for Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla to be the next commander of U.S. Central Command on Feb. 8.

Biden is expected to announce career diplomat Bridget Brink as his nominee for U.S. ambassador to Ukraine soon, current and former officials tell SitRep. (FP first reported in December 2021 that Brink was a likely pick for the job.) 

Rufus Yerxa, former deputy U.S. trade representative, has joined McLarty Associates, a Washington-based advisory firm, as a senior advisor.

Retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has been named chairman of the board of Rigetti Computing, a quantum computing company. 


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Eastern promises. The United States announced this week it will deploy 3,000 troops to Europe to bolster NATO’s eastern flank as the threat of a Russian invasion looms over Ukraine. Two thousand troops are set to go to Poland while another 1,000 troops will go to Romania as tensions on the Black Sea between Russian and NATO forces rise. 

Thanks, but no thanks. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, privately urged the U.N. chief not to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. But U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres rebuffed her offer, as FP colleague Colum Lynch scooped this week.

The 2022 Beijing Olympics, slated to start on Friday, has turned into a major global diplomatic headache as the United States and some of its allies pressure other governments not to lend legitimacy to China as it wages a genocide against ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities in its western Xinjiang province. 

The ultimate high ground. The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, a relatively obscure intelligence agency that oversees the United States’ arsenal of spy satellites, is planning to launch seven new spy satellites this year, Breaking Defense reports. What are in the payloads being launched? That’s classified, of course. 


Snapshot 

A Ukrainian military forces serviceman stands in front of tanks.
A Ukrainian military forces serviceman stands in front of tanks.

A Ukrainian military forces serviceman stands in front of tanks from Ukraine’s 92nd separate mechanized brigade, parked near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Jan. 31.Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images


What We’re Reading

Sand in the gears. Chinese ships are dredging up tons of sand from across the South China Sea to feed its massive construction and development plans, leading to ecological catastrophes, new regional tensions, and even the rise of “sand mafias” as global demand for sand (used to make concrete, glass, and other construction materials) surges. Our colleague Christina Lu has a deep dive on the craziest resource competition you’ve likely never heard of.


Put On Your Radar

Feb. 7: The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event previewing the U.S. Defense Department’s 2023 budget.

Feb. 9: Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on U.S. efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

You’re not even trying that hard. China’s foreign ministry and propaganda outlets have claimed the United States is trying to sabotage the Beijing Winter Olympics by paying athletes from some countries not to try that hard. The United States, of course, dismissed the allegations as totally false. There are probably better ways to spend U.S. taxpayer money, anyway. 

No RPGs on rollercoasters. The Taliban have banned their fighters from carrying weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), when visiting amusement parks in Afghanistan as they try to project a softer image abroad.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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