An overnight raid by United States special forces in northwestern Syria led to the death of the Islamic State terror group's top leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, President Joe Biden said Thursday.
As U.S. forces closed in, Al-Qurayshi detonated a suicide bomb "in a final act of desperate cowardice," Biden said. The blast killed not only the ISIS leader, but also his wife and their two children, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
A senior deputy of al-Qurayshi and his wife were also killed after attacking U.S. forces, Kirby said, and a child was killed during the gunfight. All U.S. forces emerged safe from the raid, which Biden said was carried out under his direction.
Kirby said U.S. forces also safely evacuated ten people from the building, including eight children, and had positively identified al-Qurayshi's remains using DNA and fingerprint analysis.
In Atmeh, a village near the Turkish border in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib Province, local residents and first responders described a chaotic scene that left a number of women and children dead and parts of the residential building targeted in the raid reduced to rubble.
The bodies of at least 13 people were found by the local White Helmets rescue service, with six children and four women among them.
The volunteer relief group, formally known as the Syrian Civil Defense, said earlier Thursday that the deceased were believed to have died in clashes and bombing “after an American airdrop."
Biden did not say how many people died in connection with the raid. Kirby said residents were given multiple warnings to leave the premises, and that the U.S. forces had offered al-Qurayshi an opportunity to surrender.
Kirby said the raid lasted about two hours, and that U.S. forces clashed with a "small group" who "engaged" them shortly before they left. "In that engagement two of them were killed. That resulted in the end of the hostile activity," Kirby said.
He declined to identify the forces involved for security reasons.
Violence in the village
Helicopters roared suddenly early Thursday over Atmeh, according to one resident who described an hourslong overnight standoff at a residential building that was subsequently reduced to rubble.
Once a small and sleepy village known for its olive trees, Atmeh has become home to a number of camps for those displaced by the country's long-running civil war. Residents described a dramatic and deadly overnight incident on Thursday.
Mohamed al-Omar, 65, told NBC News that the residential building that was targeted belongs to his son, who has been living in Germany since 2016. He said he had been renting the building out since his son's departure.
Al-Qurayshi had been on the third floor of the building when American forces arrived, a U.S. official said. A senior administration official said the U.S. had assessed that if he did detonate explosives, it would not cause the entire building to collapse and kill others on lower floors.
Al-Omar said it was his understanding that a widow and her son had been living on the third floor, while her brother, his wife and their children had been living on the second. He said he had been unaware of anyone living there having involvement in jihadist activity.
The third floor had been completely destroyed in the incident, he said, while the second and first floors were significantly damaged.
One neighbor said that he had been sleeping in his bedroom when he heard the sound of helicopters starting to get "stronger" and "louder" as they neared, describing it as "terrifying."
“I looked out the window and saw the airdrop to my neighbor’s house,” said Abu Omar, 39, via WhatsApp message.
After that, he said he heard a voice booming through loudspeakers, warning those in the residence to "leave the house immediately" or be targeted.
The calls continued for about half an hour, he said, before gunshots could be heard followed by a final warning. Omar said a woman appeared to be speaking with those issuing the warning before the house "was bombed."
A U.S. official said that a military helicopter experienced a maintenance issue during the operation. It set down safely at least a mile away from the objective, but was deemed unsafe to fly back and was detonated on site, the official said.
Thursday’s operation came as ISIS has been seeking a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the region, including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a prison that Biden said al-Qurayshi was behind.
Al-Qurayshi was named ISIS leader in October 2019 after his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S. raid in the same region earlier that month.
Al-Baghdadi also detonated a suicide bomb during the 2019 raid, killing himself and three of his children.
Al-Qurayshi “oversaw the spread of ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups around the world after savaging communities and murdering innocents,” Biden said.
Idlib is broadly controlled by Turkey-backed fighters, but is also an al-Qaida stronghold and home to several of its top operatives. Other militants, including rival ISIS extremists, have also found refuge in the area.
Syria has been gripped by over a decade of war, with the United Nations’ human rights office warning in September the conflict had already left more than 350,000 people dead, calling the figure “an undercount.”
The U.S. and its allies declared ISIS beaten almost three years ago after the extremists were driven out of their self-declared caliphate that at its peak covered swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Former President Donald Trump largely withdrew U.S. troops from Syria later in 2019, but the military has maintained a presence in the country.
Biden said Thursday’s operation was designed to minimize civilian casualties, even though doing so put U.S. troops at greater risk. The decision to launch a raid rather than an air strike was made after intelligence suggested civilians were living in the building, he said.
The raid was the largest in northwestern Syria since the one that ended in al-Baghdadi’s death in October 2019.
American forces have continued to conduct airstrikes in Syria since then, including last year.
The U.S. has also previously used drones to target top Al Qaeda figures in Idlib, with the Pentagon accusing the group of using the area as a base for threats within the country, as well as in neighboring Iraq and beyond.
Chantal Da Silva reported from London; Ammar Cheikh Omar from Antakya, Turkey; Courtney Kube from Washington; and Phil Helsel from L.A.