ATMEH, Syria (AP) — The leader of the Islamic State group blew himself up along with members of his family as American forces raided his Syria hideout Thursday, the U.S. said — the second time in three years the United States has taken out a leader of the violent group that has been struggling for resurgence with deadly attacks in the region.
President Joe Biden announced the overnight raid by American special operations forces, which U.S. officials called a “significant blow” to the radical militant organization.
The IS group at the height of its power controlled more than 40,000 square miles stretching from Syria to Iraq and ruled over 8 million people. Its attacks in the region included a major assault last month to seize a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 IS detainees.
The raid targeted Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who took over as head of the group on Oct. 31, 2019, just days after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a U.S. raid. Al-Qurayshi, unlike his predecessor, was far from a household name, a secretive man who presided over a far diminished version of the group and didn't appear in public.
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.
“Thanks to the bravery of our troops this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said at the White House. He said al-Qurayshi had been responsible for the prison assault, as well as genocide against the Yazidi people in Iraq in 2014.
About 50 U.S. special operations 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.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said U.S. forces were able to evacuate 10 people from the building: a man, a woman and four children from the first floor and four children from the second floor. He said when al-Qurayshi detonated the bomb, he also killed his wife and two children. Kirby said that U.S. officials were working to determine whether American action resulted in any civilian deaths.
There were no U.S. casualties, Kirby said. U.S. forces took fingerprints and DNA, which confirmed al-Qurayshi’s death, he said.
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. In December, a tabletop model of the three-floor house had been brought to the high-security room.
The raid 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.
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 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.
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. U.S. officials said he never left his apartment except to bathe on the building’s roof. It is difficult to gauge how his death will affect the group. U.S. officials claimed he was directly overseeing operations in Syria, including last month’s attack on the prison.
“They’re leaderless today, and that’s a significant blow," Kirby said. "This not something we believe ISIS is going to be able to get over real quickly or real easily.”
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 unwitting human shields.
Biden gave “the final go” on the mission on Tuesday morning during his daily national security briefing 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, residents and activists said, U.S. commandos staged a large ground assault, 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 unharmed.
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 who entered the home after the explosion. After a firefight, in which both were killed, officials said four children were removed from the second floor alive by U.S. forces. Kirby said that it appeared that a child on the second floor also died, though the circumstances were not clear.
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.
Another firefight erupted with a local extremist group with “”hostile" intent, Kirby said. Two people were killed outside the house and “their compadres left,” he 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.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command and the commander of the operation, said the mission goal was to capture al-Qurayshi. He said the blast set off by the IS leader was larger than would have been expected from a suicide vest, and that al-Qurayshi's body was found on the ground outside the building, thrown from the third floor by the force of the blast.
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.
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.
Baldor and Miller reported from Washington, Mroue from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Eric Tucker, Chris Megerian, Ellen Knickmeyer and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed reporting.