President Joe Biden claimed on Thursday that a US military strike in northwestern Syria overnight killed the leader of the Islamic State jihadist group, in an operation that he said demonstrated Washington’s willingness to go after terrorist groups.
Since the death in 2019 of Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was also murdered when he detonated explosives during a raid by US commandos, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi had led the group.
“This vile terrorist leader is no more thanks to the bravery of our men,” Biden said at the White House, adding that US forces took every measure to avoid civilian casualties.
According to Biden and US officials, Quraishi blew himself up as US troops approached the site, killing members of his own family, including women and children.
No death toll was given by Biden or US officials briefing reporters, but Syrian rescue workers said at least 13 people were killed, including four women and six children.
Quraishi, according to Biden and US officials, was the “driving force” behind the massacre of the Yazidis in northern Iraq in 2014, and he controlled a network of Islamic State branches spanning Africa and Afghanistan.
“Last night’s operation took a significant terrorist leader off the battlefield and delivered a powerful message to terrorists all throughout the world: We will find you,” Biden stated.
During the raid, which began about midnight, residents in the town of Atmeh, near the Turkish border, said helicopters landed and heavy gunfire and explosions were heard. According to them, US forces used loud speakers to advise women and children to evacuate the area.
Following a high-profile erroneous drone strike in Afghanistan that the Pentagon first hailed as a success, US military protocols to protect civilians are being scrutinised.
Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, often known as ISIS, has launched insurgent attacks in Iraq and Syria since its loss on the battlefield nearly three years ago. The most recent was last month, when its fighters seized an Islamic State suspects-held prison in northeastern Syria.
Local leaders, security officials, and citizens in northern Iraq believe the threat has resurfaced, aided by the lack of central control in many places.
Quraishi, a 45-year-old Iraqi, had mostly remained in the shadows since succeeding Baghdadi as leader of the group at the height of its self-declared caliphate, when it reigned over millions of people in Syria and Iraq.
“The assassination of Quraishi is a tremendous event and a huge setback to ISIS,” Syria analyst Hassan Hassan stated. “I believe ISIS will remain weak and under pressure as long as the United States remains committed on the ground in Iraq and Syria, because the United States acts like feet on a spring: if you step off, it bounces back.”
Quraishi was hiding in a Syrian region that is home to a number of militant groups, including Huras al-Din (Guardians of Religion), an al Qaeda-affiliated group with foreign militants among its leaders.
Drones have been used by US forces to target jihadists in the area for years, but Thursday’s operation seemed to be the largest by US forces in the northwest since the strike that killed al-Baghdadi, according to Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.