ATMEH, Syria (AP) — A raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria on Thursday killed Islamic State group leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, President Joe Biden said.
“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.
Biden said he would address the American people later Thursday during the raid.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.
ATMEH, Syria (AP) — U.S. special forces carried out what the Pentagon called a large-scale counterterrorism raid in northwestern Syria early Thursday. First responders at the scene reported that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women.
Residents said helicopters flew overhead and US forces clashed with gunmen for more than two hours around a two-story house surrounded by olive trees. They described continuous gunfire and explosions that rocked the sleepy village of Atmeh near the Turkish border, an area dotted with camps for internally displaced people from the Syrian civil war.
The Pentagon did not identify the target of the raid. “The mission was a success,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement. “There were no American casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.
A reporter on assignment for The Associated Press and several locals said they saw body parts strewn near the site of the raid, a house in Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib. Most residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
It was the biggest raid in the province since the 2019 Trump-era US assault that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
An Iraqi intelligence official in contact with the US-led coalition said Thursday’s target was a high-ranking militant leader whose identity will be revealed by the White House later in the day. Reports suggest he could be the successor to al-Baghdadi, the current IS leader known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the official added. He spoke on condition of anonymity to divulge sensitive information.
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, no one 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 raw explosives used by President Bashar Assad’s forces against opponents during the Syrian conflict.
The top floor of the house was almost completely destroyed in Thursday’s raid, with the ceiling and walls destroyed.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor of the remaining structure, which contained a destroyed bedroom with a wooden child’s crib on the floor. On a damaged wall, a blue plastic children’s swing still hung. The kitchen was blackened by fire.
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. They included six children and four women, he added.
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 his doors and windows began to rattle to the sound of low-flying planes at 1:10 a.m. local time. 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 US official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the military operation.
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.
The United States has in the past used drones to kill top al-Qaida operatives in Idlib, which at one time housed the largest concentration of the group’s leaders since Osama bin Laden’s days in Afghanistan. The fact that special forces landed on the ground suggests the target was considered high value.
A similar attack in Pakistan in 2011 killed bin Laden.
Thursday’s clandestine operation comes as the Islamic State group reasserts 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.
Baldor reported from Washington, DC and Mroue from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed reporting.
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