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 two-story house, surrounded by olive trees, was almost completely destroyed in Thursday’s raid, with the ceiling and walls knocked down.
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 provided no details on who the target of the raid was, or whether any fighters or civilians on the ground were killed or injured.
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 local resident, said the doors and windows of his house began to vibrate 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.
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 Observatory said US-led coalition troops using helicopters landed in the area and attacked a house. He said the force clashed with fighters on the ground. Taher al-Omar, an Idlib-based activist, also said he witnessed clashes between fighters and US forces.
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 came as the Islamic State group reasserted itself in Syria and Iraq, carrying out some of its biggest attacks since its defeat in 2019. In recent weeks and months, the group has launched a series of operations in the region, including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a prison in northeast Syria.
Kurdish-led, US-backed force says more than 120 of its fighters and prison staff have died in efforts to thwart IS plot, whose aim appears to be to free top officials of ISIS from the prison. The prison houses at least 3,000 detainees from the Islamic State group.
The prison break attempt was the extremist group’s largest military operation since defeating ISIS and dispersing members to safe houses in 2019. The US-led coalition carried out airstrikes and deployed US personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles in the prison area to assist Kurdish forces. .
At a press conference on Monday, senior SDF operative Nowruz Ahmad said the prison raid was part of a larger plot that IS had been planning for a long time, including attacks on other neighborhoods. in northeast Syria and against the al-Hol camp in the south. , which is home to 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.