A United States special forces raid in northwestern Syria early Thursday killed the top leader of the Daesh terrorist group, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, President Joe Biden said.
"Last night at my direction, US military forces in 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, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi - the leader of ISIS. All Americans have returned safely from the operation," Biden added, using another acronym for Daesh.
A U.S. official said al-Qurayshi exploded a bomb that killed him and members of his family.
U.S. special forces carried out what the Pentagon said was a large-scale counterterrorism raid in northwestern Syria early Thursday. First responders at the scene reported 13 people were killed, including six children and four women.
Residents said helicopters flew overhead and U.S. forces clashed with gunmen for more than two hours around a two-story house surrounded by olive trees. They described continuous gunfire and explosions that jolted the sleepy village of Atmeh near the Turkish border, an area dotted with camps for internally displaced people from Syria's civil war.
The Pentagon did not identify the target of the raid.
"The mission was successful," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement. "There were no U.S. casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available."
A journalist on assignment for The Associated Press (AP) and several residents said they saw body parts scattered near the site of the raid, a house in Syria's opposition-held Idlib province. Most residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
It was the largest raid in the province since the 2019 Trump-era U.S. assault that killed the Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Qurayshi, who was also known as Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi, replaced al-Baghdadi after his death.
"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 Bashar Assad's regime forces against opponents during the Syrian conflict.
The top floor of the house was almost totally destroyed in Thursday's raid, with the ceiling and walls knocked out.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor of the remaining structure, which contained a wrecked bedroom with a child's wooden crib on the floor. On one damaged wall, a blue plastic children's swing was still hanging. The kitchen was blackened with fire damage.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, also said the strike killed 13 people, including four children and two women. Ahmad Rahhal, a citizen journalist who visited the site, reported seeing 12 bodies.
The Observatory said the troops landed in helicopters. Residents and activists described witnessing a large ground assault, with U.S. forces using megaphones urging women and children to leave the area.
Omar Saleh, a resident of a nearby house, said his doors and windows started to rattle to the sound of low-flying aircraft at 1:10 a.m. local time. He then heard a man, speaking Arabic with an Iraqi or Saudi accent through a loudspeaker, urging women to surrender or leave the area.
"This went on for 45 minutes. There was no response. Then the machine gun fire erupted," Saleh said. He said the firing continued for two hours, as aircraft circled low over the area.
Taher al-Omar, an Idlib-based activist, said he witnessed clashes between fighters and the U.S. forces. Others reported hearing at least one major explosion during the operation. A U.S. official said that one of the helicopters in the raid suffered a mechanical problem and had to be blown up on the ground. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the military operation.
The military operation got attention on social media, with tweets from the region describing helicopters firing around the building near Atmeh. Flight-tracking data also suggested that multiple drones were circling the city of Sarmada and the village of Salwah, just north of the raid's location.
The U.S. has in the past used drones to kill top al-Qaida operatives in Idlib, which at one point was home to the group's biggest concentration of leaders since the days of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The fact that special forces landed on the ground suggests the target was believed to be of high value.
A similar attack in Pakistan, in 2011, killed bin Laden.
Thursday's clandestine operation came as the Daesh 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 Daesh detainees. The attack appeared aimed to break free senior Daesh operatives in the prison.