US says IS leader 'taken off battlefield' in Syria raid

US says IS leader 'taken off battlefield' in Syria raid


US says IS leader 'taken off battlefield' in Syria raid

ATME (AFP) - US special forces carried out a brazen nighttime airborne raid in northwestern Syria during which the head of the Islamic State group was "taken off the battlefield", US President Joe Biden said on Thursday.

The operation, in which Kurdish forces also took part, was conducted in the Idlib region where his better-known predecessor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in similar raid in 2019.

"Last night at my direction, US military forces in the northwest Syria successfully undertook a counterterrorism operation to protect the American people and our Allies, and make the world a safer place," Biden said in a statement.

"Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi -- the leader of ISIS," he said, using another acronym for IS.

A US official said Qurashi blew himself up during the raid.

Qurashi, who was also known as Amir Mohammed Said Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla, replaced Baghdadi after his death in a US raid in October 2019, had a reputation for brutality.

Initial reports that followed the operation near the town of Atme had suggested the target might have been a senior jihadist close to IS  rival group Al-Qaeda.

The Pentagon had acknowledged the operation earlier but without providing details, describing it only as "successful".

Biden, who said he would "deliver remarks to the American people", only added that no US servicemen were wounded during the operation.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said civilians were among at least 13 people killed in the operation, which saw elite US forces make a perilous helicopter landing near Atme.


- Children killed -

"Thirteen people at least were killed, among them four children and three women, during the operation," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Observatory later said a foreign woman blew herself up with an explosive belt inside the house.

AFP correspondents were able to visit a home on the outskirts of Atme which appeared to be one of the main targets of the US special forces.

A witness told AFP he woke to the sound of helicopters.

"Then we heard small explosions. Then we heard stronger explosions," Abu Ali, a displaced Syrian living in Atme said, adding that US forces told residents "not to worry".

"We re just coming to this house... to rid you of the terrorists," the man quoted the US forces as saying in their loudspeaker messages.

The American helicopters took off from a military base in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani, Abdel Rahman said.

Elite, US-trained members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces joined the operation, he added.

Farhad Shami, who heads the media office of the US-backed SDF, said the operation targeted "the most dangerous international terrorists."

Kurdish forces had also taken part in the raid against Baghdadi in 2019.


- Fierce battle -

The two-storey building of raw cinder blocks bore the scars of an intense battle, with torn window frames, charred ceilings and a partly collapsed roof.

In some of the rooms, blood was splattered high on the walls and stained the floor, littered with foam mattresses and shards from smashed doors.

US special forces have carried out several operations against high-value jihadist targets in the Idlib area in recent months.

The area, the last enclave to actively oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad, is home to more than three million people and is dominated by jihadists.

The region is mostly administered by a body loyal to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group led by former members of what was once Al-Qaeda s franchise in Syria.

Atme is home to a huge camp for families displaced by the decade-old conflict and which experts have warned was being used by jihadists as a place to hide among civilians.

On October 23, the US military announced the killing of senior Al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid Al-Matar.

"Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations," said Central Command spokesman Army Major John Rigsbee in a statement at the time.

Syrian government forces and their main military backer Russia have carried out repeated attacks against jihadist and other rebel groups in the Idlib region.

However a ceasefire deal which was brokered by Moscow and Ankara, the two main foreign powers in the area, almost two years ago is still officially in place.

Assad has long insisted his goal was to recapture the whole of Syria, including Idlib province, but the contours of the jihadist-run enclave have remained largely unchanged since early 2020.