Atmeh, Syria – At least 13 people, including six children, have been killed during a United States special operations forces raid in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, according to residents and first responders.
The overnight raid targeted a building in Atmeh, a densely populated town in northwest Syria near the Turkish border, where tens of thousands of people displaced by the country’s decade-long war live.
US President Joe Biden said the raid targeted the leader or ISIL (ISIS), Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.
“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 said in a statement on Thursday.
Abu Fahed al-Homsi, a displaced Syrian who lives a block away from the site of the attack, told Al Jazeera that his family was awoken in the early hours.
“We woke up at 1am to the sound of helicopters … and then at around 3am we heard a barrage of attacks,” he said.
“We saw a house that was targeted and damaged roads, but we still have no idea what was going on.”
Residents said the helicopters were hovering over the building for more than two hours, before attacking it. The US special forces then carried out a landing operation and stormed the house.
Mahmoud Chehadi, who lives nearby, said the US forces had surrounded the targeted building and used loudspeakers to call on its residents to leave the area.
“When the operation ended, we went to the area and saw a woman who apparently detonated an explosive vest, and inside the building, we saw some bodies, including [that of] a man and a child,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue group operating in rebel-held parts of Syria that is also known as White Helmets, said in a statement at least 13 people were killed, including four women.
Local activists and residents quoted by news agencies said fighters in the area clashed with US forces.
The Pentagon did not give any details about the raid, but said the “mission was successful”.
“U.S. Special Operations forces under the control of U.S. Central Command conducted a counter-terrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said.
“There were no U.S. casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
Idlib province in northwestern Syria is the last rebel-held stronghold in the war-torn country, mostly controlled by former al-Qaeda-affiliate Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham.
US-led coalition operations against remnants of ISIL (ISIS) sleeper cells are more frequent in northeastern Syria, under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
For years, the US military has also used drones to kill top al-Qaeda operatives in northern Syria, where the fighter group became active over the course of the war that began as a mass uprising against President Bashar al-Assad but quickly morphed into a full-fledged conflict.
The latest raid was the largest carried out by the US in the province since an attack in 2019 that targeted and killed ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
It came a week after US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a directive ordering military leaders to do more to protect civilians from harm in drone attacks and other combat operations.
The US military has come under renewed pressure to reform its policies following a August strike that killed 10 members of a family in Afghanistan, including several children.
Meanwhile, a December investigation by the New York Times concluded, based on a trove of confidential Pentagon documents, that US air wars in the Middle East have been marked by “deeply flawed intelligence” and “faulty targeting” that has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 civilians over the last decade.
Ali Haj Suleiman reported from Atmeh, Syria. Kareem Chehayeb reported from Beirut, Lebanon