The global leader of the Islamic State terror group was killed during an overnight raid carried out by US special forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, US President Joe Biden said Thursday.
The raid targeted Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who took over as head of the militant group on October 31, 2019, just days after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a US raid in the same area. 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 US forces approached.
“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 in remarks from the White House.
The operation came as IS has been trying for a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the region, including an assault late last month to seize a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 IS detainees, it’s boldest operation in years.
“Thanks to the bravery of our troops this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said. He said al-Qurayshi had been responsible for the prison strike, as well as genocide against the Yazidi people in Iraq in 2014.
Biden then directed his message to “terrorists” around the world: “We will find you.”
BREAKING: President Biden announces the killing of ISIS chief Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in a special forces raid. He took over a ISIS chief in October 2019 after Baghdadi was whacked. pic.twitter.com/zIhNsDGAfN
— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) February 3, 2022
Earlier, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement that the mission had been a success. “There were no US casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
US special forces landed in helicopters and assaulted 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 US forces to “take every precaution available to minimize civilian casualties,” adding that was why they chose not to conduct an airstrike on the home.
First responders reported that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women.
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.
The operation marked a military success for the United States at an important time after setbacks elsewhere — including the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal — have led allies and opponents to conclude US power globally was weakening.
Biden said Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was killed in a U.S. raid in Syria.
— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) February 3, 2022
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.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised the operation. “The world is a safer place now that leader of ISIS has been eliminated,” he wrote on Twitter.
“I commend our great ally the United States and the brave American soldiers for executing this daring operation. We must continue the global fight against terror –with strength & determination,” Bennett added.
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 crude 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; a room there had collapsed, sending white bricks tumbling to the ground below.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor of the remaining structure. 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. He had not appeared in public, and rarely released any audio recordings. His influence and day-to-day involvement in the group’s operations was not known and it is difficult to gauge how his death will affect the group.
His killing, however, is a significant blow just as the group had been trying to reassert itself in Syria and Iraq.
Residents and activists described witnessing a large ground assault, with US forces using loudspeakers urging women and children to leave the area.
There was at least one major explosion. A US official said that one of the helicopters in the raid suffered a mechanical problem and had to be blown up on the ground. The US official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the military operation.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said troops for the US-led coalition using helicopters landed in the area and attacked a house. It said the force clashed with fighters on the ground. Taher al-Omar, an Idlib-based activist, also said he witnessed clashes between fighters and the US force.
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 US as well as thousands of travelers determined to become foreign fighters. The allure of IS to would-be militants has proved challenging for the West to fully stamp out even amid leadership changes and US military strikes and raids.
At the height of its territorial conquests around 2014, the Islamic State controlled more than 40,000 square miles stretching from Syria to Iraq and ruled over 8 million people.
The Islamic State group has been reasserting itself in Syria and Iraq with increased attacks.
Last month, it carried out its biggest military operation since it was defeated and its members scattered underground in 2019: an attack on a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 IS detainees. The attack appeared aimed to break free senior IS operatives in the prison.
It took 10 days of fighting for US-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. The US-led coalition carried out airstrikes and deployed American personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the prison area to help the Kurdish forces.
A senior SDF official, Nowruz Ahmad, said Monday that the prison assault was part of a broader plot that IS had been preparing for a long time, including attacks on other neighborhoods in Kurdish-run northeastern Syria and on the al-Hol camp in the south, which houses thousands of families of IS members.
The US-led coalition has targeted high-profile militants on several occasions in recent years, aiming to disrupt what US officials say is a secretive cell known as the Khorasan group that is planning external attacks. A US airstrike killed al-Qaida’s second in command, former bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria in 2017.