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‘Leader blows himself up’ to avoid capture
ATMEH, Syria, Feb 3, (AP): The leader of the violent Islamic State group was killed Thursday, blowing himself up along with members of his family during an overnight raid carried out by U.S. special operations forces in northwestern Syria, President Joe Biden said.
The raid targeted Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who took over as head of the militant group on Oct. 31, 2019, just days after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a U.S. 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 U.S. forces approached. 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, its 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. U.S. special 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. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. officials believe al-Qurayshi’s explosive killed himself, his wife, and three children. She added that U.S. officials were conducting an assessment to determine whether any civilians were killed. U.S. forces collected DNA, which later confirmed al-Qurayshi’s death, officials 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.
The president was kept abreast of the commandos’ long flight out of Syria by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan overnight. The operation 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. “The mission was successful,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement.
“There were no U.S. casualties.” 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, 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. U.S. officials said Al-Qurayshi never left his third floor apartment, where he lived with his family, except to bathe on the building’s roof.
He communicated only through couriers, according to U.S. officials, directly overseeing the group’s operations in Syria, including last month’s assault on attack on the prison. Over the past several months, Biden has been regularly updated on the intelligence surrounding al-Qurayshi’s whereabouts and the operational planning for the raid once he was located, officials said. In December, a tabletop model of the three-floor house was brought to the Situation Room. 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 the IS leader’s 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.