Amman (Reuters) – A U.S. military raid in northwestern Syria overnight killed the leader of the Islamic State jihadist group, President Joe Biden said on Thursday, in an operation which he said showed Washington’s determination to go after terrorist groups.
Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had led Islamic State since the death in 2019 of its founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was also killed when he detonated explosives during a raid by U.S. commandos.
“Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in remarks at the White House, adding that U.S. forces took every possible precaution to minimise civilian casualties.
As U.S. troops approached the target, Quraishi blew himself up, also killing members of his own family, including women and children, according to Biden and U.S. officials.
Neither Biden nor U.S. officials briefing reporters provided a death toll, but Syrian rescue workers said at least 13 people were killed, including four women and six children.
Biden and U.S. officials described Quraishi as the “driving force” behind the 2014 genocide of minority Yazidis in northern Iraq, and said he oversaw a network of Islamic State branches from Africa to Afghanistan.
“Last night’s operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield and has sent a strong message to terrorist around the world: We will come after you and find you,” Biden said.
Residents in the town of Atmeh, near the Turkish border, said helicopters landed and heavy gunfire and explosions were heard during the raid that began around midnight. U.S. forces used loud speakers to warn women and children to leave the area, they said.
U.S. military procedures to guard against civilian casualties are under scrutiny following a high-profile mistaken drone strike in Afghanistan that the Pentagon initially hailed a success.
Since its defeat on the battlefield nearly three years ago, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, has waged insurgent attacks in Iraq and Syria. The most recent was last month when its fighters stormed a prison in northeastern Syria housing Islamic State suspects.
Local leaders, security officials and residents in northern Iraq say it has been re-emerging as a deadly threat, aided by a lack of central control in many areas.
Quraishi, a 45-year-old Iraqi, had remained largely in the shadows since succeeding Baghdadi who led the group at the height of its self-declared caliphate, when it controlled swathes of Syria and Iraq and ruled over millions of people.
“Quraishi’s killing is a huge deal and a huge blow to ISIS because ISIS never heard from this new leader,” Syria analyst Hassan Hassan said. “I think ISIS will continue to be weak and under pressure as long as the Americans are on the ground in Iraq and Syria and involved, because the U.S. serves as feet on a spring: once you step off, it sort of bounces back.”
Quraishi was hiding out in a region of Syria that is home to several militant groups including Huras al-Din (Guardians of Religion), an al Qaeda-affiliated faction whose leaders include foreign fighters.
U.S. forces have for years used drones to target jihadists in the area, but Thursday’s operation appeared to be the largest by U.S. forces in the northwest since the raid that killed al-Baghdadi, said Charles Lister, senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.