In a national address delivered this morning, President Joe Biden performed what has now become a familiar ritual for U.S. politicians: announcing the death of a terrorist leader. The latest enemy figure whose death has been presented to Americans as a victory was the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, who was reportedly killed alongside his family during a U.S. special forces raid in northern Syria last night. In brief remarks, Biden characterized the raid as a victory that had made the world more secure, and without cost to Americans.
“Last night at my direction, U.S. military forces in northwest Syria successfully undertook a counterterrorism operation to protect the American people and our Allies, and make the world a safer place,” Biden said in a statement early Thursday morning. “Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi—the leader of ISIS. All Americans have returned safely from the operation.”
The raid on a home where al-Quraishi was staying killed a total of 13 people, including a number of women and children. Images on social media of mangled corpses immediately began circulating in the aftermath, broadcast from the scene by local journalists. The attack came after weeks of violence in northern Syria, where ISIS fighters staged an uprising against members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that killed hundreds. Initial claims by Biden and other U.S. officials have suggested that the civilians killed in the raid on al-Quraishi’s house died when the ISIS leader chose to detonate his own suicide vest rather than be captured by U.S. forces. Syrian journalists also shared images online of wreckage from a crashed U.S. helicopter, though U.S. officials have echoed Biden’s statement that no Americans were harmed in the operation.
Although al-Quraishi, alongside his family, does appear to be dead, Biden’s claim in his public address that the world has been made safer by the killing of yet another terrorist leader is hard to credit. Since the outset of the Global War on Terrorism over two decades ago, the periodic killings of commanders from groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda, al-Shabab, and, most recently, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have been touted as significant victories and even turning points in America’s so-called war on terror. Despite these repeated tactical victories, from which U.S. presidents have extracted much political capital over the years, the underlying wars themselves have continued and even worsened.
An article in the national security publication War on the Rocks last year highlighted the limits of killing terrorist leaders as a means of strategic victory. “Too often, leadership decapitation is viewed as a panacea, as policymakers tout the removal of high-value targets to suggest a ‘turning point’ that fails to materialize,” noted Colin Clarke, the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm. “It is correct to seek to decapitate terrorist organizations, but these are tactical actions, not strategic ones.”
Not much is known about al-Quraishi in comparison with his more notorious predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An investigation last year by the national security publication New Lines Magazine drew upon Iraqi intelligence files and interviews with individuals who had previously been incarcerated with him to paint a picture of the man who had been quietly holding the reins of ISIS over the past several years. That investigation managed to get some context about his past from personal documentation and also a photo of him while incarcerated by U.S. forces in 2008 at Camp Bucca, a military prison in Iraq. But it is unclear how much power al-Quraishi actually wielded and how important he was to an organization that has been severely diminished by years of brutal fighting. There is little reason to assume that the killing of al-Quraishi will result in anything more than a tactical reorganization of the Islamic State, or even its splintering into other, new extremist groups amid the ongoing misery and chaos of the Syrian civil war. His death is also unlikely to mean an end to the U.S. “forever wars” in the region, which have switched to a permanent mode of militarized policing in which the U.S. reserves the right to carry out bombings and assassinations at will but does not refer to these actions as “war,” even when civilians are killed in the process.
After a long list of failures and defeats, the U.S. public has clearly tired of its conflicts in the Middle East. But despite rhetoric from American leaders about ending the forever wars, they look likely to continue under new definitions and with new tactics. In his remarks announcing the death of al-Quraishi, even Biden refrained from promising a forthcoming end to the conflicts or even a radically transformed security situation for Americans. Though al-Quraishi, a man whom most Americans would likely have been unable to name, is now dead, along with several civilians, the two-decade-long conflict that led to his emergence still continues — with no horizon in sight.