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ISIS leader is killed in U.S. counterterrorism mission in Syria, Biden says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How did the United States conduct a special operations attack inside Syria? President Biden confirmed the raid today. According to the U.S., it led to the death of the leader of the Islamic State. The United States says he blew himself up, along with others, when under attack. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. He's been covering this with us all morning. Greg, welcome back.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the best information you have?

MYRE: So that a little while after midnight, these U.S. special operation forces arrived by helicopter outside this cinderblock house in an area called Atma (ph). It's in northwest Syria, tucked away near the Turkish border. Lots of extremist groups have operated in this area. Now, according to witnesses on social media, the U.S. forces used loudspeakers calling on people to come out of the house; apparently, they didn't. There was a lengthy standoff. Eventually, a firefight breaks out, so U.S. forces are spending a lot more time there than they would have liked to. But in the end, the ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed. He took over two years ago after the U.S. killed the previous leader. Relatively little was known about him, but President Biden described him as an important figure.

INSKEEP: Of course, President Biden, the commander in chief, was the person who made the decision here, a decision not only to strike but to strike with people on the ground instead of missiles from the air. And we heard from the president this morning live here on NPR News. What struck you?

MYRE: Well, he did emphasize that the U.S. did send these special operation forces, which certainly raised the risk to the U.S. They could have carried out a drone strike on this house, which was sort of set aside for - surrounded by olive trees a little bit on its own. But Biden said the Pentagon, what - he and the Pentagon were concerned about civilian casualties. Here's how he described al-Qurayshi's final moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In a final act of desperate cowardice, he, with no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building, he chose to blow himself up, not just with a vest but to blow up that third floor, rather than face justice for the crimes he has committed, taking several members of his family with him, just as his predecessor did.

INSKEEP: That's very interesting there, Greg Myre, because he says rather than face justice, as if to imply that the United States might have been willing to take him out alive. We don't know if that's the case. We're just referring to the way that the president spoke there. This is not our only source of information about this raid, though. The U.S. military is not the only source of information. What are you hearing from others?

MYRE: So this Syrian rescue group, the so-called White Helmets, said they reached the scene within minutes after the U.S. forces left by helicopters. They said they recovered 13 bodies, including six children and four women. They didn't specify the other three. So we don't know how many might have been killed when al-Qurayshi blew himself up or how many might have died in the firefight. These are still early reports. New information could emerge. But it's clear Biden was aware of the risk of civilian casualties. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Our forces carried out the operation with their signature preparation and precision, and I directed the Department of Defense to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties.

MYRE: And the Pentagon said there were no U.S. casualties.

INSKEEP: What is the current status of ISIS?

MYRE: Well, they don't control territory, but we've seen in recent days that they're still a dangerous group. Just a couple weeks ago, ISIS fighters attacked a prison in northeastern Syria. They tried to free hundreds of their colleagues or comrades. This fighting took 10 days, but eventually the Kurdish fighters allied with the U.S. and with some help with the U.S. retook the prison. Again, it points to the danger of ISIS, not nearly as strong as they were several years ago but still able to carry out pretty large-scale attacks.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks very much for your reporting, really appreciate it.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.