US president says Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi died during raid by US special forces in Idlib’s Atmeh, during which women and children were reported to have been killed.
US President Joe Biden said a raid conducted by US special forces in northwest Syria on Wednesday killed the leader of the Islamic State group (IS), adding he would address the operation in remarks later in the day.
“Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi – the leader of ISIS. All Americans have returned safely from the operation,” Biden said in a statement, referring to the acronym by which the militant group is sometimes known.
Several civilians, including women and children, were also reported to have been killed in the raid in Idlib, about 2km from the Turkish border, according to local sources and local rescue teams.
Qurayshi succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who led IS when it took over large swathes of Syria and Iraq, ruling over millions of people at the height of its self-declared caliphate.
Baghdadi was killed in October 2019 by US troops – also in a raid in north Syria – after IS fighters were defeated on the battlefield. The group is now waging insurgent attacks in Iraq and Syria.
Wednesday’s operation began at around 12:40am, with violent clashes continuing for about three hours, after three US helicopters covered by a warplane targeted a three-story house east of the village of Atmah, local sources told Middle East Eye.
The aircraft, which had been preceeded by several reconnaissance planes, are believed to have taken off from eastern Syria, where the US-led coalition fighting IS, runs several military bases.
US forces using loud speakers from the helicopters could be heard throughout the area, speaking several languages in an Iraqi dialect and calling on fighters believed to have been holding a meeting at the house to surrender.
After about an hour of sporadic clashes, about 30 US special forces were landed and began to break into the house, according to the sources.
Local witnesses said they heard the voices of soldiers on the ground asking a woman to surrender, but she refused, and violent clashes broke out after which she left the house and blew herself up with an explosive belt.
Sources on the ground said that US special forces had moved a civilian family from the site of the attack to a safe place.
The targeted house was reportedly rented to a 50-year-old displaced man from Aleppo, who was married to two women and had five children.
A source close to the owner of the house said that the owner had tried several times to drink tea with the tenant, but he had refused the invitations, which had aroused suspicion.
Coalition planes targeted any movement around the house, including cars, some of which are believed to have come to support the fighters who were being attacked.
Al-Jazeera, along with local media and activists, began broadcasting the raid live on their Facebook pages, showing the helicopters, shelling and clashes.
After about three hours, the helicopters withdrew after receiving fierce resistance from the ground.
A prominent military leader told MEE that the US forces blew up a helicopter near the area of the operation after it ended.
He said that the helicopter may have been hit during the operation and was not able to return to its base.
Reconnaissance planes then launched several air strikes, destroying the site of the operation, according to local sources.
Syrian rescue workers said at least 13 people, including six children and four women, died during the operation.
Speculation over target
Earlier reports on social media earlier said the target of the raid was a senior IS leader, while other Syrian sources said the target was a senior al-Qaeda member.
Following the raid, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement: “US Special Operations forces under the control of US Central Command conducted a counter-terrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria. The mission was successful.
“There were no US casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.” He did not identify the target.
The airborne landing of US forces has become commonplace in eastern Syria but is extremely rare in northwest Syria, where Turkish forces have been deployed since 2018 to maintain a ceasefire between rebels and Russian-backed government forces.
Local sources say they believed the operation had targeted IS leaders who had fled towards Idlib from a prison in the northern Syrian city of Hasakah which IS fighters attacked last month.
The sources said that Arabic-speaking US special forces had told locals that they had come to help civilians and target an IS leader, asking them to remain calm and not be afraid.
A source who entered the house after the attack ended said that the US special forces had searched the house thoroughly before leaving, so that they did not leave behind any old documents revealing the identity of the group stationed in the house.
The sources added that a member of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the main armed group that controls Idlib, had been killed by the US special forces and another member wounded.
The men had approached the scene of the attack with their weapons to see what was going on and were attacked by the US special forces who thought they were from IS, they said.
Local sources described the operation as very complicated, given that the targeted location is very close to camps and residential areas, which means that it would be difficult for US special forces to manoeuvre on the ground if the targets fled towards the tents or the residential areas.
HTS has not commented on the attack so far, but it prevented media teams from filming the location of the operation for several hours, and prevented the filming of interviews with the wounded in nearby hospitals, according to local sources.
Last week, an independent study of the Pentagon reported that the US military was not properly equipped to investigate civilian casualties and take steps to prevent future deaths.
On the same day, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that the Pentagon would implement a series of measures that would change the culture of the military in order to prioritise the prevention of civilian harm as a core part of their missions.
The Rand Corporation said in the congressionally mandated study that the Defense Department “is not adequately organized, trained or equipped to fulfill its current responsibilities for addressing civilian harm”.
According to an analysis from Brown University’s Costs of War Project, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed directly in the violence carried out by the US military post-September 11 2001.
In August, a US drone strike in Afghanistan mistakenly killed aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and nine members of his extended family, including seven children.
A recent investigation by The New York Times, based on confidential military assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties, showed that the US air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group was marked by flawed intelligence, confirmation bias and little accountability.
Another report by the newspaper also presented allegations that the US military had sought to conceal casualties from an air strike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children.
Source: Middle East Monitor