Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense & National Security — Inside the US raid that killed an ISIS leader

It’s Thursday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: digital-stage.thehill.com/newsletter-signup.  

U.S. forces carried out a counterterrorism mission in northwest Syria that killed Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.  

We’ll dive deeper into the raid, plus the U.S.’s accusation that Russia may create the pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.     

For The Hill, I’m Jordan Williams. Write to me with tips at jwilliams@digital-stage.thehill.com 

Let’s get to it. 

US raid kills ISIS leader  

P. Biden speaks from the White House

President Biden said early Thursday that a U.S. raid in Syria on Wednesday killed the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.  

“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.  

The Pentagon disclosed the raid by U.S. special operations forces late Wednesday evening, describing it as “successful” and saying that there were no American casualties.  

How it happened: In a speech given later Thursday morning, President Biden said his national security team made a decision to pursue a special forces raid rather than an air strike because al-Qurayshi chose to surround himself with family, including children.  

“We made this choice to minimize civilian causalities,” Biden said.   

The raid was months in the making, according to a second senior administration official, who said that the president was first briefed over a month ago by operational commanders. Biden gave the final order to conduct the operation during an Oval Office meeting Tuesday morning with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.  

Who is al-Qurayshi? Al-Qurayshi took over as the head of ISIS after a 2019 U.S. operation killed then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, though he remained largely off the grid and out of the public eye.   

Little is known about al-Qurayshi, as he did not appear on video or give public statements. He was born in Iraq and was 45 years old. Officials said that he never left the house that was the site of the raid and that he used couriers to communicate.    

President Biden on Thursday said al-Qurayshi “oversaw the spread of ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups around the world after savaging communities and murdering innocents.”   

He was also directly responsible for attacking a Syrian prison holding ISIS fighters. The ensuing battle with Syrian Democratic Forces left hundreds dead. 

Who else died in the operation? Officials said that the raid also took out an ISIS lieutenant, who barricaded himself on the second floor of the building and engaged in a firefight with U.S. forces. 

The Pentagon called the mission successful on Wednesday and said that there were no American casualties.  

Thirteen people, including women and children, were reportedly killed, though a senior administration official disputed public reports about casualties, saying a family and children were evacuated safely from the dwelling where the raid occurred. 

 

Read today’s coverage of the air raid: 

Biden says ISIS leader blew himself up as US forces closed in 

US raid resulted in multiple deaths, including civilians, residents say 

Five things to know about the US raid that killed ISIS leader 

 

US: Russia creating pretext for Ukraine invasion

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Thursday that the U.S. believes Russia may plan to create a pretext to invade Ukraine by producing propaganda video showing aggression toward Russians.  

“We do have information that the Russians are likely to want to fabricate a pretext for an invasion,” Kirby said. “One option is the Russian government, we think, is planning to stage a fake attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory, or against Russian speaking people, to therefore justify their action.”  

Kirby confirmed a report first published by The Washington Post earlier Thursday that indicated Russia would create a fake attack by Ukraine on Russians.  

What a pretext would look like: “We believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment at the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be made to look like it was Western supplied to Ukraine equipment,” Kirby said.  

When asked if U.S. officials believe the fake attack was approved by the Kremlin, Kirby said, “Our experience is that very little of this nature is not approved at the highest levels of the Russian government.”  

A senior administration official told The Hill that this option is “one of a number of options Russia has developed,” adding that they were publicizing the possible plan “in the hopes that it dissuades Russia from its intended course of action.”  

Withholding the evidence: State Department spokesperson Ned Price defended the administration’s strategy to withhold evidence to support their allegations of a potential Russian plot, saying the exposure in general serves as a deterrent.  

“We are making it available to you for a couple reasons. One, is to attempt to deter the Russians from going ahead with this activity. Two, in the event we’re not able to do that, in the event the Russians do go ahead with this, to make it clear as day, to lay bare the fact that this has always been an attempt on the part of the Russian Federation to fabricate a pretext,” Price said.  

A quick flashback: Russia has amassed upward of 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine in recent weeks. New satellite imagery shows a buildup of Russian military activity and camps along its border with Ukraine.  

Last month, the Biden administration accused Russia of preparing a false flag operation to serve as the pretext for an invasion.  

At the time, the administration said it had information indicating that Moscow has prepositioned a group of operatives who are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to carry out “acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces,” the official said. 

The administration also said at the time that Russian influence actors had begun fabricating Ukrainian provocations on in state and social media sites to justify a Russian intervention. 

Read the full story here. 

OATH KEEPERS’ LEADER SPEAKS WITH JAN. 6 COMMITTEE

Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the right-wing Oath Keepers, spoke to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol for roughly 6 1/2 hours on Wednesday, answering some questions from the panel and pleading the Fifth to others. 

Rhodes’s attorney Jonathan Moseley confirmed to The Hill that his client spoke to the investigative panel remotely from a federal detention facility in Oklahoma, where he is currently being held after being charged with seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 attack.

What Rhodes said: Moseley said Rhodes’s criminal defense attorney insisted that he plead the Fifth on questions pertaining to events that occurred from Nov. 3, 2020, through Wednesday because they are covered in his federal indictment.  

He did, however, answer general and historical questions about the Oath Keepers, according to Moseley. 

The attorney said the meeting “frontloaded” topics that Rhodes could talk about, then moved into questions that he couldn’t.   

The deposition, however, remains open, according to Moseley, which gives the select committee the ability to call Rhodes back for questioning if they want to dispute something he refused to discuss. 

Recapping the charges: Rhodes was arrested and charged on Jan. 13, marking the first seditious conspiracy charges brought in connection to the deadly riot. Ten other members of the far-right group were also charged. 

If convicted, Rhodes could face up to 20 years in prison. 

Justice Department prosecutors are alleging that Rhodes encouraged members of the Oath Keepers to use violence as part of an effort to prevent President Biden from taking office after he won the 2020 presidential election.   

Read the full story here 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

 

WHAT WE’RE READING

 

That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for latest coverage. See you on Thursday. 

Tags Joe Biden John Bolton John Kirby Lloyd Austin Mark Milley

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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