Biden says Islamic State leader killed in US raid in Syria
An overnight raid by US special forces in northwestern Syria led to the death of Islamic State group (IS) leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi and a number of civilians, US President Joe Biden said.
Speaking at the White House on Thursday, Biden lauded the brazen operation in Idlib, about 2km from the Turkish border, claiming it eliminated a "major terrorist threat to the world."
"As our troops approached to capture the terrorist, in a final act of desperate cowardice, with no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building, he chose to blow himself up… rather than face justice for the crimes he has committed," Biden said.
A senior administration official said earlier that the explosive device Qurayshi detonated killed himself in addition to several others on the third floor of the building he was in, including his wife and children.
"The blast was so large on the third floor that it blew bodies outside of the house and into the surrounding areas," the official said.
The official said "all casualties at the site were due to the acts of [IS] terrorists," but did not provide details as to how many civilians were killed in total.
SDF support was essential
Qurayshi, an Iraqi from the Turkmen-majority city of Tal Afar, was also known as Amir Mohammed Said Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla.
He succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who led IS when it took over large swathes of Syria and Iraq, ruling over millions of people at the height of its self-declared caliphate.
Baghdadi was killed in October 2019 by US troops - also in a raid in northern Syria - after IS fighters were defeated on the battlefield. The group is now waging insurgent attacks in both Iraq and Syria.
The US government had offered a $10m reward for information leading to Qurayshi, who was one of the world's most wanted men.
Wednesday's operation began at around 12:40am, with violent clashes continuing for about three hours, after three US helicopters covered by a warplane targeted a three-story house east of the village of Atmeh, local sources told Middle East Eye.
The aircraft, which had been preceded by several reconnaissance planes, are believed to have taken off from eastern Syria, where the US-led coalition fighting IS, runs several military bases.
The senior Biden administration official said Washington was "especially grateful for our local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose support was essential to the mission success".
US forces using loud speakers from the helicopters could be heard throughout the area, speaking several languages in an Iraqi dialect and calling on fighters believed to have been holding a meeting at the house to surrender.
After about an hour of sporadic clashes, about 30 US special forces were landed and began to break into the house, according to the sources.
Local witnesses said they heard the voices of soldiers on the ground asking a woman to surrender, but she refused, and violent clashes broke out after which she left the house and blew herself up with an explosive belt.
Sources on the ground said that US special forces had moved a civilian family from the site of the attack to a safe place.
The senior Biden administration official added that another senior IS leader, a lieutenant who was not identified, was killed after he "barricaded himself and members of his own family in the second floor" of the building.
"He and his wife engaged the assault force. They were killed in the course of the operation," the official said.
The targeted house was reportedly rented to a 50-year-old displaced man from Aleppo, who was married to two women and had five children.
A source close to the owner of the house said that the owner had tried several times to drink tea with the tenant, but he had refused the invitations, which had aroused suspicion.
Coalition planes targeted any movement around the house, including cars, some of which are believed to have come to support the fighters who were being attacked.
Al Jazeera, along with local media and activists, began broadcasting the raid live on their Facebook pages, showing the helicopters, shelling and clashes.
After about three hours, the helicopters withdrew after receiving fierce resistance from the ground.
A prominent military leader told MEE that the US forces blew up a helicopter near the area of the operation after it ended.
He said that the helicopter may have been hit during the operation and was not able to return to its base.
Reconnaissance planes then launched several air strikes, destroying the site of the operation, according to local sources.
The Biden official confirmed the helicopter was disposed of, saying that it was due to a "mechanical issue" and that it "had nothing to do with any kind of hostile action".
Syrian rescue workers said at least 13 people, including six children and four women, died during the operation.
Syrian Civil Defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, said one civilian was injured when he approached the house to find out what was happening and that they had rescued an injured girl from the house and taken her to hospital.
Earlier reports on social media said the target of the raid was a senior IS leader, while other Syrian sources said the target was a senior al-Qaeda member.
Following the raid, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement: "US Special Operations forces under the control of US Central Command conducted a counter-terrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria. The mission was successful.
"There were no US casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available." He did not identify the target.
The airborne landing of US forces has become commonplace in eastern Syria but is extremely rare in northwest Syria, where Turkish forces have been deployed since 2018 to maintain a ceasefire between rebels and Russian-backed government forces.
Local sources say they believed the operation had targeted IS leaders who had fled towards Idlib from a prison in the northern Syrian city of Hasakah which IS fighters attacked last month.
The sources said that Arabic-speaking US special forces had told locals that they had come to help civilians and target an IS leader, asking them to remain calm and not be afraid.
A source who entered the house after the attack ended said that the US special forces had searched the house thoroughly before leaving, so that they did not leave behind any old documents revealing the identity of the group stationed in the house.
The sources added that a member of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the main armed group that controls Idlib, had been killed by the US special forces and another member wounded.
The men had approached the scene of the attack with their weapons to see what was going on and were attacked by the US special forces who thought they were from IS, they said.
The Biden administration official said that near the end of the operation there was some hostile activity with individuals the US believed to be a part of HTS, and that American forces killed at least two "enemy combatants".
Local sources described the operation as very complicated, given that the targeted location is very close to camps and residential areas, which means that it would be difficult for US special forces to manoeuvre on the ground if the targets fled towards the tents or the residential areas.
HTS has not commented on the attack so far, but it prevented media teams from filming the location of the operation for several hours, and prevented the filming of interviews with the wounded in nearby hospitals, according to local sources.
Last week, an independent study of the Pentagon reported that the US military was not properly equipped to investigate civilian casualties and take steps to prevent future deaths.
On the same day, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that the Pentagon would implement a series of measures that would change the culture of the military in order to prioritise the prevention of civilian harm as a core part of their missions.
The Rand Corporation said in the congressionally mandated study that the Defense Department "is not adequately organized, trained or equipped to fulfill its current responsibilities for addressing civilian harm".
According to an analysis from Brown University's Costs of War Project, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed directly in the violence carried out by the US military post-September 11 2001.
In August, a US drone strike in Afghanistan mistakenly killed aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and nine members of his extended family, including seven children.
A recent investigation by The New York Times, based on confidential military assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties, showed that the US air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group was marked by flawed intelligence, confirmation bias and little accountability.
Another report by the newspaper also presented allegations that the US military had sought to conceal casualties from an air strike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children.