U.S. Special Operations forces carried out what the Pentagon called a “successful” counterterrorism mission in northwest Syria early Thursday. The risky commando assault targeted someone believed to be a senior jihadist leader, but rescue workers said women and children were among at least 13 people killed during the raid.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official said the target of the raid was the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, but U.S. officials did not confirm that and have not said who the target was.
The helicopter-borne commando assault resembled the raid in October 2019 that culminated in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the previous leader of the Islamic State. That raid took place not far from the one on Thursday.
“Last night at my direction, U.S. 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,” President 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-Qurayshi—the leader of ISIS.”
The airborne raid came days after the end of the largest U.S. combat involvement with the Islamic State since the end of the jihadists’ so-called caliphate three years ago. American forces backed a Kurdish-led militia in northeastern Syria as it fought for more than a week to oust Islamic State fighters from a prison they had occupied in the city of Hasaka.
American helicopters ferried the commandos into position after midnight, surrounding a house in Atmeh, a town close to the border with Turkey in rebel-held Idlib Province, according to eyewitnesses, social media reports and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a conflict monitor based in Britain.
A long, tense standoff ensued, with loudspeakers blaring warnings in Arabic for everyone in the house to surrender, neighbors said. After about two hours, the house’s occupants had not emerged and a major battle erupted, with heavy machine gun fire and apparent missile strikes that damaged the house, collapsed some of its walls and blew out its windows.
During the operation, one of the American helicopters suffered a mechanical problem, was forced to land and was later destroyed by American attack aircraft. After about three hours, the American commandos and their remaining helicopters flew off, witnesses said.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday in Washington, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, issued a terse statement: “U.S. Special Operations forces under the control of U.S. Central Command conducted a counterterrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria. The mission was successful. There were no U.S. casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
American officials declined to identify what one called a “high value” target, pending a DNA analysis, but said that the Biden administration could make an announcement as early as Thursday.
A number of senior Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding out in northwestern Syria.
Reporting was contributed by Falih Hassan, Muhammad Najdat Hij Kadour, Asmaa al-Omar, Hwaida Saad and Evan Hill.