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The U.S. Special Operations counterterrorism mission in northwest Syria Thursday that killed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was “long planned,” and on the level and scale of the U.S. operation to take out Usama bin Laden in 2011, senior administration officials told Fox News.
U.S. military forces on Thursday “successfully” moved in on the global leader of ISIS, also known as Haji Abdullah, President Biden said Thursday. Al-Qurayshi took over as the leader of the Islamic State in 2019 after the U.S. counterterrorism operation that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Senior administration officials said al-Qurayshi was wearing a suicide vest and detonated a blast that killed himself, his wife, and the children in their residence. Officials added that they believe he chose to live in a building with many residential families, not linked to ISIS, on purpose.
Officials said suicide vests for a mission of this level are a commonly used tactic, adding that the U.S. assault force team was well outside the range of what they assessed to be the likely explosive impact.
Senior administration officials told Fox News that intelligence for this operation came in early December.
But officials told Fox News that the planning for Thursday’s operation “was on the level and scale of the bin Laden raid,” noting that the target never left his home and only occasionally went to his rooftop to bathe. He lived on the third floor of the compound, and relied on couriers and a lieutenant who lived on the second floor to operate his global terror network.
Biden was first briefed in December, and gave the order to go ahead with the operation early Tuesday morning in the Oval Office, where his national security team and commanders presented options.
In early December, commanders brought a table-top model of the compound into the Situation Room, and presented their assessment of the operation. Officials said the raid was viewed as one of “significant risk,” and assessed it to be “incredibly complex and dangerous.”
A national security source told Fox News that at the time of his death the DOJ had a standing reward offer – $10 million – for any information leading to the identification or location of al-Qurayshi. The offer was active on advice from U.S. and Iraqi intelligence agencies.
Given the large number of children believed to be inside the building, and the fact that it was a residential building, Biden opted for a commando raid using ground forces, and not an airstrike that would have destroyed the entire residential compound, he said.
Biden said Thursday he directed the Department of Defense to take “every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties,” noting that the special forces raid presented “a much greater risk to our own people” than an airstrike.
Officials told Fox News that there was “great relief” inside the Situation Room at the White House when they learned that a total of eight children exited the compound and were moved to safety.
But they said al-Qurayshi used his family and children as human shields, and detonated a suicide vest, which killed him, his wife and several children on the third floor early during the two-hour commando operation.
An administration official told Fox News that both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were in the Situation Room for the entire raid.
At the end of the operation, a senior official told Fox News that Biden said, “God bless our troops,” and left the room.
An official said that from a “tactical” perspective, the operation went “precisely as expected.”
“The goal here was to remove Abdullah from the battlefield,” the official said. “And that was successful.”
The president, on Thursday, thanked U.S. forces, who he said “carried out the operation with their signature preparation and precision.”
The president praised the “immense courage and skill and determination” of U.S. forces who “skillfully executed this incredibly challenging mission.”
“The members of our military are the solid steel backbone of this nation, ready to fly into danger at a moment’s notice to keep our country and the American people safe as well as our allies,” the president said, adding that he is “also grateful to the families of our service members.”
“You serve right alongside years of these soldiers and sailors, Marines, special forces, the loved ones giving them the strength and support they need to do what they do,” Biden said. “And for their families, we’re forever grateful.”
The president went on to commend the U.S. intelligence community, the Pentagon and members of his national security team, saying their “meticulous work over the course of many months ensured that this mission succeeded.”
“This operation is a testament to America’s reach and capability to take our terrorist threats, no matter where they try to hide, anywhere in the world,” Biden said.
“I’m determined to protect the American people from terrorist threats, and I’ll take decisive action to protect this country,” he said, adding that the U.S. will “continue working with our close allies and partners, the Syrian democratic forces, the Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, and more.”
Senior administration officials did not share an exact number of civilians killed in the operation, but said some numbers being reported “do not align with our information.”
Officials, though, noted that all casualties at the site were due to acts of ISIS terrorists, not the U.S. military.
The Pentagon said there were no U.S. casualties, and senior administration officials said no U.S. troops were injured in the operation.
Officials also said there was a mechanical issue with one of the helicopters assigned to the mission, and, as a result, the U.S. military destroyed it at a distance from the target location. An official stressed that no hostile action brought down the special ops helicopter.
Fox News has learned that the helicopter was a specially-fitted Blackhawk helicopter favored by Special Operations Command 160th SOAR, also known as Task Force 160, or Night Stalkers – an elite U.S. Army special operations unit that flies helicopters in support of both SOF and regular forces.
Officials described al-Qurayshi as the “driving force” behind the genocide of the Yazidi religious minority and the enslavement of thousands of Yazidi girls, and said he oversaw the network that included ISIS branches around the globe. Officials said he had direct oversight of ISIS activities across Iraq and Syria.
“The world is a much safer place with him gone,” a senior administration official said.
The area where the raid happened, which is near the Turkish border, is home to several top al Qaeda operatives and other militant groups still fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Prior to Thursday’s raid, the Islamic State group has been reasserting itself in Syria and Iraq with increased attacks.
Last month, ISIS carried out its biggest military operation since it was defeated and its members scattered underground in 2019: an attack on a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 IS detainees. The attack appeared aimed to free senior IS operatives in the prison.
It took 10 days of fighting for U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces to retake the prison, and the force said more than 120 of its fighters and prison workers were killed along with 374 militants. The U.S.-led coalition carried out airstrikes and deployed American personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the prison area to help the Kurdish forces.
Fox News’ Gillian Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.