U.S. MH-60M Helicopter Used In Raid To Kill ISIS Leader in Syria Blown Up On The Ground By U.S. Forces

MH-60 raid
The aftermath of the destruction of a MH-60M that suffered mechanical problems during the raid. (Photo: Anadolu Agency) In the box: UAV view of the target compound. (Photo: DoD)

What we know about the U.S. Special Forces raid on al-Qurayshi in Syria and the MH-60M helicopter destroyed on the ground because it was “not going to be usable” for the return flight.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced today the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the Islamic State militant group, happened during a Special Forces raid last night in Syria. The raid to take down al-Qurayshi, successor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (killed during a raid in 2019), was being planned for months, with President Biden giving the final approval for the assault on February 1, 2022.

“Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said during an address to the nation this morning. “I’m grateful for the immense courage and skill and determination of our 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.”

A Defense Department official said that an air strike on the target was ruled out early in the planning because of the potential civilian casualties involved, as intelligence showed that the terrorist leader was living in a three-story building with an unrelated civilian family on the first floor. That, however, was not enough to prevent collateral damage, as al-Qurayshi detonated an explosive belt, destroying the building’s third floor and killing his family.

Following the explosion, the Special Forces were engaged in a gunfight with a ISIS top lieutenant who lived on the second floor with his family. The explosion and gunfight contributed to the number of women and children among the 13 reported casualties, which official said were not due to U.S. weaponry. Several children were evacuated from the second floor, along with the other civilian family on the first floor that was successfully evacuated at the beginning of the raid.

“I directed the Department of Defense to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties, knowing that this terrorist had chosen to surround himself with families, including children,” Biden said in his remarks. “We made a choice to pursue a Special Forces raid at a much greater risk to our own people rather than targeting him with an airstrike. We made this choice to minimize civilian casualties.”

The operators were able to confirm the death of al-Qurayshi through fingerprints identified on-site, as well as DNA analysis from recovered remains, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. Officials said they have been tracking al-Qurayshi for months, as he was linked to numerous terrorist attacks, including the one at Kabul airport that resulted in the death of 13 U.S. servicemembers during last summer’s evacuation. According to the intelligence, he rarely left the compound in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and used couriers to communicate with ISIS militants.

The counterterrorism operation happened after midnight and lasted more than two hours, according to the details released so far. A civilian who lives nearby the target compound, interviewed by the Washington Post, said that he heard helicopters arriving at around 1 am, followed by heavy gunfire and clashes that went on until around 4 am. Unconfirmed reports mentioned the presence of multiple AH-64E Apache, MH-47G Chinook and MH-60M Black Hawk helicopters. At least one unspecified Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was monitoring the area from above during the raid.

No details were released about which unit was involved in the raid, even if some unconfirmed sources suggested the raid was executed by the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D) commonly referred to as “Delta” in popular media. The U.S. forces did not report casualties, however, at the beginning of the operation, one of the helicopters was abandoned and destroyed away from the target compound.

Images and videos circulating online show the remains of a MH-60M of the 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment (SOAR) “Night Stalkers”, recognizable from its heavily modified nose which was less damaged in the explosion. There are conflicting reports about the destruction being carried out by troops on the ground with explosives or an air strike being ordered after the helicopter was abandoned, while some other reports mentions the initial destruction by ground forces and then a follow-on air strike.

Senior administration officials confirmed that the helicopter suffered a mechanical issue as it arrived near the target compound. After the insertion of the Special Forces, it was assessed that the specially modified MH-60 was “not going to be usable” for the return flight and the decision was made to fly it “well beyond any kind of visual range” and then detonate it. The helicopter did not suffer a crash of any kind and there aren’t reports about crew’s injuries, while sensitive items were removed before the destruction.

The number and helicopters and operators involved has not been disclosed. The raid, however, presents many similarities with the one in 2019 that resulted in the death of al-Baghdadi. In that occasion, about eight helicopters and between 50 to 100 operators were reported to be on target during the operation, assisted by fighter jets providing Close Air Support. It is possible that a similarly sized assault force was employed also on this raid, providing enough margin to evacuate the “grounded” crew and the operators that were on the doomed helicopter without substantial problems.

Actually, there are also some similarities with the 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. As you will probably remember, one of the helicopters supporting the raid skittered around uncontrollably in the heat-thinned air as the package prepared to land near OBL’s compound forcing the pilot to crash-land. As it did, the tail and rotor hit on one of the OBL’s compound’s 12-foot walls. The helicopter was blown up but its tail rotor and other parts survived.

As the first images of the remains of one of the helicopters used by the U.S. Navy SEALs in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, started to spread through the social media on May 2, 2011, aviation experts and enthusiasts around the world immediately noticed something pretty weird: those parts, didn’t seem to belong to any known type of chopper. Few hours later, on May 3, 2011, we posted an article to explain that the helicopter that had crashed in Pakistan had some stealthy features.

Indeed, the tail rotor had an unusual cover that could be anything from an armor plate to a noise reduction cover sheltering the motion-control technology used to input low-frequency variations of rotor blade pitch-angle, as tested by NASA; the blades were flatter, and not wing-shaped, whereas the paint job was extremely similar to the kind of anti-radar paint and Radar-Absorbing Material coating used by the most modern stealth fighters: nothing common to either Black Hawks, Chinooks or Apaches helicopters.

The saga of the “Stealth Black Hawk” had just begun, but that’s another story…

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.