United States President Joe Biden has said the leader of ISIL (ISIS) has been “taken off the battlefield” following an overnight raid in Syria that also killed children and women.
A senior US administration official told reporters on Thursday that ISIL leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was killed in the raid.
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Later on Thursday, Biden confirmed al-Qurayshi’s death and lauded the operation in a brief speech. He blamed the civilian deaths on the ISIL leader, whom he said blew himself up in an “act of desperate cowardice” as US forces approached.
“He chose to blow himself up – not just with a vest, but to blow up that third floor – rather than face justice for the crimes he has committed, taking several members of his family with him,” Biden said.
ISIL has yet to confirm al-Qurayshi’s death.
Biden said the operation shows the United States’s “reach and capability to take out terrorist threats” around the world.
“I’m determined to protect the American people from terrorist threats, and I’ll take decisive action to protect this country,” the US president added.
Biden had said in a statement earlier that the raid in northwest Syria was undertaken to protect the American people and US allies and “make the world a safer place”.
“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,” Biden said.
The White House released a photo of Biden and other top officials early on Thursday that it said was taken while the US president was observing the “counterterrorism operation”.
Meanwhile, the senior US official also said that at least some of the civilian deaths were the result of al-Qurayshi detonating a bomb.
“At the beginning of the operation, the terrorist target exploded a bomb that killed him and members of his own family, including women and children,” the official said.
The Pentagon said there were no US casualties in the raid.
ISIL named al-Qurayshi as its head in 2019 after confirming the death of former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed by US special forces days earlier.
In 2020, the US Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program offered $10m for information leading to the identification or location of al-Qurayshi, who went by many names and aliases, including Hajji Abdallah and Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla.
“Born in Mosul, Iraq, in 1976, al-Mawla was a religious scholar in ISIS’s predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and steadily rose through the ranks of ISIS to become the deputy emir,” the Department of State said in a statement at that time.
Al-Qurayshi took over leadership of the role at a time when ISIL was particularly beleaguered, largely reduced to scattered sleeper cells after being territorially defeated in Syria months earlier.
However, there have been recent clashes between the group and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including an attempt in January by ISIL to break thousands of followers out of a prison near Hassakeh in northeast Syria in a coordinated attack that started days of heavy fighting.
A US-led coalition carried out air raids and deployed US personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to support the Kurdish forces in repelling the attack. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands fled in ISIL’s most brazen attack in years, and fighting has continued.
SDF has said the assault was part of a wider plot of resurgence by the group.
The overnight raid in Atmeh, a densely populated town in rebel-held Idlib province near the Turkish border, left at least 13 people dead including six children and four women, first responders said.
Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said Biden will have to explain the civilian deaths, as well as answer why his administration has continued to keep about 900 US troops in Syria.
“This is a surprise on a number of counts, not only the fact that there are still US operations in Syria which many will be unfamiliar with, but also the fact that the United States was not more careful, more surgical in this operation and allowing it to be more precise and preventing these [civilian deaths],” Halkett said from Washington, DC.
“This is something that the US military will have to explain but it also something the US president will have to explain why he’s continued this Trump-era policy.”
The raid in Syria comes less than a week after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a directive ordering the US military to do more to protect civilians from harm in drone attacks and other combat operations.
The Pentagon faced criticism last year after a drone attack in Kabul killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
US military leaders initially insisted that the raid targeted ISIL operatives planning an attack on the airport in the Afghan capital, before eventually acknowledging the civilian deaths. “At this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike,” Mark Milley, the top US general, told reporters in a briefing on September 1.
On Thursday, several leading US lawmakers praised the operation in Syria.
“Our entire nation is grateful for the patriotism and dedication of our military personnel and intelligence community,” Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the house of Representatives, said in a statement. “On behalf of the Congress, I salute President Biden’s strong leadership to keep our nation safe and secure.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Biden “deserves credit” for the raid, but he criticised the US president’s broader policies, including the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
“This operation again shows why forward-deployed American forces, working with allies and partners on the ground, must continue to exist in troubled regions. It is imperative we hit them before they hit us,” Graham wrote in a series of tweets.
Idlib is the last rebel-held stronghold in war-torn Syria, and is mostly controlled by former al-Qaeda-affiliate Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham. Turkish-backed fighters also control portions of the province. Tens of thousands of people displaced by the country’s decade-long war live in camps that dot the area.
Residents told Al Jazeera helicopters had hovered over the targeted building for more than two hours before the attack. The US special forces then carried out a landing operation and stormed the house.
The US-led coalition has conducted recent operations against remnants of ISIL sleeper cells in northeastern Syria.
The US military has also used drones to kill top al-Qaeda operatives in northern Syria, including an attack that killed al-Qaeda second in command Abu al-Kheir al-Masri in 2017.
On Thursday, the top floor of the targeted house was almost totally destroyed, with blood splattered on the walls of the structure that remained standing.