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IS leader dies during US raid in Syria

February 3, 2022

The US said the leader of the so-called "Islamic State" was "taken off the battlefield" in a raid in northwestern Syria. Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi blew himself up during the raid, President Joe Biden said.

The raid targeted a two-story building, seen in this image with torn window frames, charred ceilings and a partially collapsed roof
The large-scale counterterrorism raid targeted a village in IdlibImage: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

US President Joe Biden on Thursday said US armed forces "have taken off the battlefield" Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) group.

The US halted "a major terror threat to the world," Biden said in a press briefing on Thursday. 

The Pentagon earlier announced that the counterterrorism operation in Idlib, northwestern Syria, was "successful."

It came after a series of attacks by IS in the region in recent weeks.

Like his predecessor

Biden said al-Qurayshi blew up a bomb that killed himself, his wife, and his two children during the raid.

Local residents had described the raid as the biggest since the October 2019 US operation, in which former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated a bomb that killed him and his family members. Al-Qurashi had replaced al-Baghdadi shortly after his death.

"He chose to blow himself up… rather than face justice for the crimes that he committed," Biden said, "Just as his predecessor did." 

Biden said al-Qurayshi was responsible for a recent attack on a prison in Syria, and that he was the "driving force behind the genocide of Yazidi people" in Iraq. 

What we know about the raid

Biden said he ordered the raid to "protect the American people and our allies, and make the world a safer place." 

There were no US casualties, he said, but provided no further details, such as the number of US troops involved in the operation. 

"What we're hearing is [that] US forces, about two dozen of them, backed up by helicopters and fighter jets and drones, landed in the overnight hours, made announcements to their presence, told women and children to leave the area [and] there was no response — that's what we're hearing from US officials," said DW reporter William Glucroft.

Glucroft added, citing US officials, that the US-led coalition troops then clashed with fighters in rebel-held Idlib. 

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that US soldiers rescued 10 people, including several children, from the first floor of the building damaged by al-Qurayshi's detonation.

Kirby also said that DNA and fingerprints were taken to confirm al-Qurayshi's identity.

Residents said the fighting around a house in the village of Atmeh lasted around three hours.

According to an unnamed US official quoted by the Associated Press, one of the US helicopters suffered a mechanical problem during the raid and had to be blown up on the ground. The New York Times also reported the incident.

Blood covers the floor of a destroyed house after an operation by the US military in the Syrian village of Atmeh in Idlib
A building of raw cinder blocks bore the scars of an intense battleImage: Ghaith Alsayed/AP/picture alliance

Casualties reported

Biden said the US deliberately chose not to carry out an airstrike "to limit civilian casualties," adding that IS leaders hide among women and children. 

Still, the Britain-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman told the AFP news agency that "13 people at least were killed, among them four children and three women, during the operation." 

The Observatory had earlier put the death toll at nine. 

The Syrian Civil Defense, volunteer first responders also known as the White Helmets, also reported that at least 13 people were killed, including six children.

A 'success story' that Biden needed 

DW correspondent in Washington, DC, Oliver Sallet said that while US officials have emphasized the importance of the raid, the operation comes at a time when IS has already lost significant power.

"The best days of IS are over. And certainly they're not as big as they used to be," Sallet said.

"The killing of al-Qurayshi is not as important as the killing of al-Baghdadi, or the killing of [Osama] Bin Laden during the Obama tenure," he added. 

Sallet said that the announcement comes as Biden faces "enormous pressure" domestically.

"His popularity is at a historic low," he said. "The troop pullout from Afghanistan was considered a failure in policy, and also the way it was carried out, especially that Kabul airport attack. This now can be considered somewhat of a correction of that image, and certainly that success story he urgently needed."

In recent months, US special forces have carried out several operations against jihadi targets in and around Idlib.

The region, mostly administered by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group of former members of al-Qaida's franchise in Syria, is the last enclave to actively oppose the government of President Bashar al-Assad. 

But other militants, including extremists from the rival IS group, have also found refuge in the region.

Idlib is also home to camps for families displaced by the conflict of the past decade. Analysts warn that extremist groups use the region as a place to hide among civilians. 

fb/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)