US special forces have killed the leader of ISIS in an overnight raid in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province, President Joe Biden announced on Thursday.
Muhammad Al Mawla, also known as Abu Ibrahim Al Hashimi Al Qurayshi, took over as the head of the infamous terrorist group after his predecessor, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was killed in a similar night-time US special forces raid in Idlib. There were no US casualties.
"This horrible terrorist leader is no more. Our forces carried out the operation with their signature preparation and precision," Mr Biden said in an address from the White House.
Al Qurayshi died the same way that Al Baghdadi did: by detonating a bomb as US forces approached in what Mr Biden described as a “final act of desperate cowardice".
“With no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building, he chose to blow himself up … rather than face justice for the crimes he has committed, taking several members of his family with him just as his predecessor did,” the president said.
At least 13 people including six children and Al Qurayshi's wife were killed in the assault, which took place about five kilometres from the Syrian border with Turkey, local civil defence teams said.
UNICEF said it confirmed at least six children were killed and one girl was badly injured.
The US did not confirm those figures, but Pentagon's press secretary John Kirby said "at least three" civilians died in the operation during remarks he gave on Thursday.
The assault took place near the town of Atmeh, around 41 kilometres north of Idlib city.
Witnesses told The National they heard heavy gunfire through the night in an area near a camp for displaced Syrians who have fled the fighting of the now decade-long civil war.
“I was in the nearby camp here and we heard the sound of helicopters, very loud at night, and we were terrified — me, my children and the camp residents,” Muhammad Al Khaled, a Syrian living nearby, told The National.
“After that, we started hearing the sound of shooting and clashes and we were terrified until the clashes ended. Then we came here in the morning to see what happened at night and we found that there were a large number of women and children killed because of the attack."
Other residents said they heard soldiers trying to warn women and children to leave the area.
“We heard the sound of the coalition forces shouting through the loudspeaker that the women and children should leave the targeted house so that they would not be killed,” said Youssef Skoul, a displaced person from Homs.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said US-led coalition troops using helicopters landed in the area, attacked a house and clashed with fighters on the ground.
Mr Kirby and General Frank McKenzie, the head of the US military's Central Command, said on Thursday that US forces evacuated people from the building.
“It killed everyone on the third floor, and in fact it ejected multiple people from the building, including Haji Abdullah," Gen McKenzie said of the suicide bomb detonated by the ISIS leader.
One of the helicopters in the raid had a mechanical problem and had to be blown up on the ground, a US official said.
Idlib is the last bastion of rebel-held territory in Syria, home to millions of civilians who have fled fighting but also several top Al Qaeda operatives and groups affiliated to Al Qaeda, including Hurras Al Din.
But the province has also hosted some ISIS commanders — most famously Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, who was killed there in a US special forces raid in October 2019 only 15 kilometres south of Atmeh.
In pictures: counterterrorism operations in Syria and Iraq
The province is dominated by the extremist group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a militant organisation that officially has parted ways with Al Qaeda. It stands accused of multiple human rights violations.
The US-led coalition has conducted a number of air strikes in Idlib, hitting Al Qaeda-linked leaders.
On October 23, the US military announced the killing of Al Qaeda senior leader Abdul Hamid Al Matar.
“Al Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, co-ordinate with external affiliates and plan external operations,” said central command spokesman Maj John Rigsbee at the time.
Ground operations are rare and high risk. US Special Forces raids in Iraq and Afghanistan have typically relied on surprise and speed to stun terrorists, often taking place in the early hours of the morning.
Operations are often intended to end within minutes — ideally with a captured suspect for interrogation. That contrasts with what appears to have been an extremely violent confrontation on Thursday morning that lasted for at least two hours.
The overnight raid on Thursday was the largest such US operation in north-west Syria since the killing of Al Baghdadi.