The raid targeted Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who took over as head of the militant group on October 31, 2019, just days after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a US raid in the same area.
A US official said al-Qurayshi died as al-Baghdadi did, by exploding a bomb that killed himself and members of his family, including women and children, as US forces approached.
The operation came as IS has been trying for a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the region, including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a prison.
US special forces landed in helicopters and assaulted a house in a rebel-held corner of Syria, clashing for two hours with gunmen, witnesses said. Residents described continuous gunfire and explosions that jolted the town of Atmeh near the Turkish border, an area dotted with camps for internally displaced people from Syria’s civil war.
First responders reported that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women.
Biden said in a statement that he ordered the raid to “protect the American people and our allies, and make the world a safer place.” He planned to address the American public later Thursday morning.
“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 in a statement. He said all Americans involved in the operation returned safely.
The operation marked a military success for the United States at an important time after setbacks elsewhere — including the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal — have led allies and opponents to conclude US power globally was weakening.
The two-story house, surrounded by olive trees in fields outside Atmeh, was left with its top floor shattered and blood spattered inside. A journalist on assignment for The Associated Press and several residents said they saw body parts scattered near the site. Most residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“The mission was successful,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement. “There were no US casualties.”
Idlib is largely controlled by Turkish-backed fighters but is also an al-Qaida stronghold and home to several of its top operatives. Other militants, including extremists from the rival IS group, have also found refuge in the region.
“The first moments were terrifying; no one knew what was happening,” said Jamil el-Deddo, a resident of a nearby refugee camp. “We were worried it could be Syrian aircraft, which brought back memories of barrel bombs that used to be dropped on us,” he added, referring to crude explosives-filled containers used by President Bashar Assad’s forces against opponents during the Syrian conflict.
The top floor of the low house was nearly destroyed; a room there had collapsed, sending white bricks tumbling to the ground below.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor of the remaining structure. A wrecked bedroom had a child’s wooden crib and a stuffed rabbit doll. On one damaged wall, a blue plastic baby swing was still hanging. Religious books, including a biography of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, were in the house.
Al-Qurayshi had kept an extremely low profile since he took over leadership of the Islamic State. He had not appeared in public, and rarely released any audio recordings. His influence and day-to-day involvement in the group’s operations was not known and it is difficult to gauge how his death will affect the group.
His killing, however, is a significant blow just as the group had been trying to reassert itself in Syria and Iraq.
The opposition-run Syrian Civil Defence, first responders also known as the White Helmets, said 13 people were killed in shelling and clashes that ensued after the US commando raid.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, also said the strike killed 13 people, including four children and two women. Ahmad Rahhal, a citizen journalist who visited the site, reported seeing 12 bodies.
The Pentagon provided no details on casualties in the raid.