Atmeh, Syria – Mousab al-Sheikh is in shock.
“Nobody used to think about Daesh [ISIL] here,” he says, standing by the remains of a three-floored building that he and his father own in Atmeh, a town in Syria’s Idlib province just off the Turkish border.
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The structure was destroyed during an overnight United States special forces operation on Thursday that killed at least 13 people, including six children, according to first responders. The following evening, US President Joe Biden said the operation had targeted and led to the death of ISIL (ISIS) leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. US officials said al-Qurayshi blew himself up, also killing his wife and children. ISIL has yet to acknowledge his death.
On Friday morning, al-Sheikh and other residents in Atmeh, a town hosting people displaced by Syria’s decade-old war, told Al Jazeera they had never seen the shadowy ISIL leader – but they would sometimes encounter a man who turned out to be his key facilitator.
“My father rented out the second floor to a man 11 months ago who was displaced from Aleppo – the contract was in his name, Moustapha Sheikh Youssef,” Al-Sheikh recalls, adding that the man was referred to as Abu Ahmad. “There was nothing suspicious. He just said he worked in Sarmada, where he would repair damaged cars and resell them.”
Abu Ahmad moved in with his wife and several children. He would visit al-Sheikh to pay $130 in rent, and did so always on time.
On a typical day, al-Sheikh said Abu Ahmad would leave the apartment early in the morning, at about 7am, and return at sunset. “He would sometimes come back as late as 11pm, though,” the landlord said. “We thought he was just a civilian who rented the place.”
Five months after renting out the second floor, Abu Ahmad asked al-Sheikh about the vacant flat on the third floor, requesting to rent it out for his sister and her daughter. After formally signing the contract with al-Sheikh’s father, nobody moved in for a few weeks.
“I reached out to ask him about why nobody has showed up, and he told me not to worry, and that they will move in tomorrow,” al-Sheikh recalls.
The following day, al-Sheikh and some residents saw a woman and child move into the apartment. And much like Abu Ahmad and his family, they always kept to themselves, even the children.
The two flats became somewhat of an enigma for residents in Atmeh, said Mohammad, who found shelter in the town after fleeing a Russian and Syrian army-led military offensive in southern Idlib in 2018.
“We and the other neighbours around here would just call the building as ‘Abu Ahmad’s house’,” he told Al Jazeera.
For the past six months, residents said they were in the dark about what was going on inside the apartments – let alone that one housed al-Qurayshi, ISIL’s leader since 2019, when his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was also killed after igniting an explosive vest during another US raid in Idlib.
“Nobody would get out of the house, all we knew was the family that lived on the first floor,” says 13-year-old Ahmad, who lives about 50 metres (164 feet) from the building. “The kids wouldn’t go to school with us or play like we did in the neighbourhood.”
Al-Sheikh says he still does not know how al-Qurayshi had made it into the building, as Abu Ahmad apparently ran errands both for business and family. “We never visited him, and he never visited us. The women didn’t even talk to the other women in the neighbourhood,” he adds.
“We’d see the kids play on the roof sometimes, or rarely right outside the house, but they wouldn’t mix with the other kids.”
According to US officials, al-Qurayshi would only sometimes leave the flat to bathe on the roof.
In their account, senior US administration officials also said al-Qurayshi “never left the house. He commanded by couriers who came and went”. They also said the 45-year-old Iraqi seemed to purposefully live in a residential building, “with an innocent family and others living on the first floor … who had nothing to do with ISIS and did not know who was living on the third floor … He used these innocent people as his shield.”
According to the US account, an ISIL lieutenant had barricaded himself and his family on the second floor of the building during the raid. “He and his wife engaged the assault force. They were killed in the course of the operation,” an official said.
One resident told Al Jazeera that he saw remnants of an explosive vest near a woman’s body the morning after the operation.
The family on the first floor made it out of the building safely, though the mother alleged in a video interview that US forces beat them, yelled at them and left them handcuffed on the floor after they fled the building. She said US troops were baffled that the family did not know anything about their two neighbours.
Meanwhile, several Atmeh residents told Al Jazeera they fear similar raids on other possible sleeper cells in the area. Northwest Syria is the last opposition-held stronghold in the war-torn country, with former al-Qaeda-affiliates Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham largely controlling Idlib province and Turkish-backed forces controlling northern Aleppo. Almost two-thirds of the more than four million people living in the region are internally displaced.
“The area here never had military activity or armed groups running around,” Mohammad says. “Now we’re worried that our children’s lives could be at risk.”
For his part, al-Sheikh is worried about the future following the destruction of the building, an economic lifeline for his family living in a region where some 97 percent of the population live in extreme poverty.
“The building now needs a lot of fixing,” he says. “But look I just want to say, this man has brought so much damage to us and everyone here.”
Ali Haj Suleiman reported from Atmeh, Syria. Kareem Chehayeb reported from Beirut, Lebanon