ATMEH, Syria — The leader of the violent Islamic State group was killed in a nighttime raid by US special forces in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, President Joe Biden said Thursday.
The raid targeted Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who took over as leader of the militant group on October 31, 2019, just days after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a US raid in the same area. A US official says al-Qurayshi died like al-Baghdadi, when he detonated a bomb that killed himself and his family members, including women and children, as US forces approached .
The operation came as IS attempted a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the area including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a prison.
US special forces landed in helicopters and raided a house in a rebel-held corner of Syria, clashing with gunmen for two hours, witnesses said. Residents described continuous gunfire and explosions that rocked the town of Atmeh near the Turkish border, an area dotted with camps for internally displaced people from the Syrian civil war.
First responders reported that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women.
Biden said in a statement that he ordered the raid to “protect the American people and our allies, and make the world a safer place.” He planned to address the American public later Thursday morning.
“Thanks to the skill and bravery of our armed forces, we have removed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi – the leader of the Islamic State – from the battlefield,” Biden said in a statement. He said all Americans involved in the operation returned safely.
According to an official, Biden, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and senior national security officials, monitored a live feed of the operation from the White House Situation Room.
The operation marked a military success for the United States at an important time after setbacks elsewhere – including the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan – led allies and opponents to conclude that American power was weakening in the world.
The two-storey house, surrounded by olive trees in fields outside Atmeh, was left with its top floor broken and blood splattered inside. A reporter on assignment for The Associated Press and several locals said they saw body parts strewn near the site. Most residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“The mission was a success,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement. “There were no American casualties.”
Idlib is largely controlled by Turkish-backed fighters, but is also an al-Qaeda stronghold and home to several of its top operatives. Other militants, including extremists from the rival group IS, have also found refuge in the area.
“The first moments were terrifying; nobody knew what was going on,” said Jamil el-Deddo, a resident of a nearby refugee camp. “We feared that they were Syrian planes, which remind us of the barrels of explosives that were dropped on us,” he added, referring to the containers filled with crude explosives used by the forces of the President Bashar Assad against opponents during the Syrian conflict.
The top floor of the lower house was almost destroyed; a room had collapsed there, dropping white bricks to the floor below.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor of the remaining structure. A destroyed room had a wooden child’s cradle and a stuffed rabbit doll. On a damaged wall, a blue plastic baby swing still hung. Religious books, including a biography of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, were in the house.
Al-Qurayshi had kept an extremely low profile since taking over as leader of the Islamic State. He had not appeared in public and rarely released audio recordings. His influence and day-to-day involvement in the group’s operations were unknown and it is difficult to assess how his death will affect the group.
His assassination, however, is a blow as the group tried to reassert itself in Syria and Iraq.
The opposition-led Syrian Civil Defence, first responders also known as the White Helmets, said 13 people had been killed in shelling and clashes following the US commando raid.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, also said the strike killed 13 people, including four children and two women. Ahmad Rahhal, a citizen journalist who visited the site, reported seeing 12 bodies.
The Pentagon did not provide any details of the victims of the raid.
The Observatory said the troops landed in helicopters. Residents and activists described witnessing an extensive ground assault, with US forces using megaphones urging women and children to leave the area.
Omar Saleh, a resident of a nearby house, said he was sleeping when his doors and windows began to vibrate to the sound of low-flying planes at 1:10 a.m. local time. He ran to open the windows with the lights off and saw three helicopters. He then heard a man, speaking Arabic with an Iraqi or Saudi accent through a loudspeaker, urging the women to surrender or leave the area.
“It lasted 45 minutes. There was no response. Then machine gun fire broke out,” Saleh said. He said the firing continued for two hours as the planes circled low over the area.
Taher al-Omar, an Idlib-based activist, said he witnessed clashes between fighters and US forces. Others reported hearing at least one major explosion during the operation. A US official said one of the helicopters in the raid had a mechanical problem and had to explode on the ground.
The military operation drew attention on social media, with tweets from the region describing helicopters firing around the building near Atmeh. Flight tracking data also suggested that several drones surrounded the town of Sarmada and the village of Salwah, just north of the raid site.
Through skillfully crafted propaganda, including brutal beheading videos, IS has become a dominant global extremist threat over the past decade. His clear call for Western followers to either join his self-declared caliphate in Syria or commit acts of violence at home inspired murders in the United States as well as thousands of travelers determined to become foreign fighters. ISIS’s appeal to would-be militants has proven difficult for the West to root out completely, even amid leadership changes and US military strikes and raids.
At the height of its territorial conquests around 2014, the Islamic State controlled more than 40,000 square miles stretching from Syria to Iraq and ruled over 8 million people.
The Islamic State group has reasserted itself in Syria and Iraq with an increase in attacks.
Last month, it carried out its largest military operation since its defeat and dispersal of its members into hiding in 2019: an attack on a prison in northeastern Syria housing at least 3,000 IS detainees. The attack appeared to be aimed at freeing senior IS officials in the prison.
It took 10 days of fighting for Kurdish-led, US-backed forces to fully retake the prison, and the force said more than 120 of its fighters and prison workers had been killed along with 374 activists. The US-led coalition carried out airstrikes and deployed US personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the prison area to assist Kurdish forces.
A senior SDF official, Nowruz Ahmad, said on Monday that the raid on the prison was part of a larger plot that ISIS had been planning for a long time, including attacks on other neighborhoods in the northeast of the city. Syria under Kurdish control and against the al-Hol camp in the south, which houses thousands of families of IS members.
The US-led coalition has repeatedly targeted high-profile militants in recent years, aiming to disrupt what US officials believe is a secret cell known as the Khorasan Group that is planning attacks exterior. A US airstrike killed al-Qaida’s second-in-command, former Bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria in 2017.