By GHAITH ALSAYED, LOLITA C. BALDOR, BASSEM MROUE and ZEKE MILLER
ATMEH, Syria (AP) — The leader of the violent Islamic State group was killed during an overnight raid carried out by U.S. special forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, President Joe Biden said Thursday.
The raid targeted Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who took over as head of the militant group on Oct. 31, 2019, just days after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a U.S. raid in the same area. Biden said al-Qurayshi died as al-Baghdadi did, by exploding a bomb that killed himself and members of his family, including women and children, as U.S. forces approached.
The operation came as IS has been trying for a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the region, including an assault late last month to seize a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 IS detainees, it’s boldest operation in years.
“Thanks to the bravery of our troops this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said. He said al-Qurayshi had been responsible for the prison strike, as well as genocide against the Yazidi people in Iraq in 2014.
U.S. special forces landed in helicopters and attacked a house in a rebel-held corner of Syria, clashing for two hours with gunmen, witnesses said. Residents described continuous gunfire and explosions that jolted the town of Atmeh near the Turkish border, an area dotted with camps for internally displaced people from Syria’s civil war.
Biden said he ordered U.S. forces to “take every precaution available to minimize civilian casualties,” the reason they did not conduct an airstrike on the home.
First responders reported that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women. U.S. officials said they did not have a sure sense of how many family members were with al-Qurayshi when the explosive detonated.
Biden, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and senior national security aides monitored a live-feed of the operation from the White House Situation Room according to an official. The president was kept abreast of the commandos’ long flight out of Syria by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan overnight.
The operation marked a military success for the United States at an important time after setbacks elsewhere — including the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal — had led allies and opponents to conclude U.S. power globally was weakening.
The house, surrounded by olive trees in fields outside Atmeh, was left with its top floor shattered and blood spattered inside. A journalist on assignment for The Associated Press, and several residents, said they saw body parts scattered near the site. Most residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“The mission was successful,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement. “There were no U.S. casualties.”
Idlib is largely controlled by Turkish-backed fighters but is also an al-Qaida stronghold and home to several of its top operatives. Other militants, including extremists from the rival IS group, have also found refuge in the region.
“The first moments were terrifying; no one knew what was happening,” said Jamil el-Deddo, a resident of a nearby refugee camp. “We were worried it could be Syrian aircraft, which brought back memories of barrel bombs that used to be dropped on us,” he added, referring to crude explosives-filled containers used by President Bashar Assad’s forces against opponents during the Syrian conflict.
The top floor of the low house was nearly destroyed, sending white bricks tumbling to the ground below.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor of the remaining structure. A wrecked bedroom had a child’s wooden crib and a stuffed rabbit doll. On one damaged wall, a blue plastic baby swing was still hanging. Religious books, including a biography of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, were in the house.
Al-Qurayshi had kept an extremely low profile since he took over leadership of the Islamic State. He had not appeared in public, and rarely released any audio recordings. His influence and day-to-day involvement in the group’s operations was not known and it is difficult to gauge how his death will affect the group.
U.S. officials said Al-Qurayshi never left his third floor apartment, where he lived with his family, except to bathe on the building’s roof. He communicated only through couriers, according to U.S. officials, directly overseeing the group’s operations in Syria, including last month’s assault on attack on the prison.
Over the past several months, Biden has been regularly updated on the intelligence surrounding al-Qurayshi’s whereabouts and the operational planning for the raid once he was located, officials said.
In December, a tabletop model of the three-floor house was brought to the Situation Room.
The second floor of the house was occupied by a lower-ranking Islamic State leader and his family, but the first floor contained civilians who were unconnected to the terrorist group and unaware of al-Qurayshi’s presence, according to U.S. officials, who described them as the IS leader’s unwitting human shields.
Biden gave “the final go” on the mission on Tuesday morning in the Oval Office, where he was joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
In the first stages of the operation, U.S. commandos approached the building and announced their presence. Residents and activists described witnessing a large ground assault, with U.S. forces using megaphones urging women and children to leave the area.
Much to the relief of U.S. officials, the family on the first floor exited the building. The force of the explosion blew bodies out of the house.
The IS lieutenant, who officials did not name, who lived on the second floor barricaded himself inside along with his wife and engaged in combat with the commandos. After a firefight, in which both were killed, officials said four children left the building.
The special operations forces spent about two hours on the ground, longer than usual for such an operation — indicative, U.S. officials said, of caution to minimize civilian casualties.
Before they left, another firefight erupted with a local extremist group. At least two fighters were killed, officials said.
U.S. troops launched the airborne raid from a base in the region, but officials would not specify the precise location due to operational security concerns. They added that the U.S. “deconflicted” the operation with a “a range of entities” but did not specify whether those included Russia, which has supported the Assad government in Syria.
There was no comment from the Syrian government, which rarely acknowledges or comments on attacks by foreign countries targeting areas outside its control.
A U.S. official said one of the helicopters in the raid suffered a mechanical problem and was redirected to a site nearby, where it was destroyed.
Through slickly engineered propaganda, including brutal beheading videos, IS emerged as a dominant global extremist threat in the past decade. Its clarion call to followers in the West to either join its self-described caliphate in Syria, or to commit acts of violence at home, inspired killings in the U.S. as well as thousands of travelers determined to become foreign fighters. The allure of IS to would-be militants has proved challenging for the West to fully stamp out even amid leadership changes and U.S. 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.
Last month‘s attack on the prison in Hasaka marked the group’s biggest military operation since it was defeated and its members scattered underground in 2019. The attack appeared aimed to break free senior IS operatives in the prison.
It took 10 days of fighting for U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces to retake the prison fully, and the force said more than 120 of its fighters and prison workers were killed along with 374 militants.
The U.S.-led coalition has targeted high-profile militants on several occasions in recent years, aiming to disrupt what U.S. officials say is a secretive cell known as the Khorasan group that is planning external attacks. A U.S. airstrike killed al-Qaida’s second in command, former bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria in 2017.
Baldor and Miller reported from Washington and Mroue from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Eric Tucker, Chris Megerian and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed reporting.