President Joe Biden said a “major terrorist leader” was eliminated in the overnight US military raid in north-western Syria that resulted in the death of the leader of ISIS along with several members of his family.
Abu Ibrahim Al Hashimi Al Qurayshi was killed when he detonated a bomb in the third-storey apartment he and his family shared in Atmeh village in north-western Syria as US forces closed in, said senior US officials who briefed reporters on the mission. There were no American casualties.
“This horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Mr Biden said from the White House. “Our forces carried out the operation with their signature preparation and precision.”
He died as 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 had confirmed that that at least six children were killed and one girl was badly injured.
Mr Biden said he and the Pentagon had chosen to conduct a special forces operation rather than an air strike in a bid to minimise civilian casualties.
US military procedures to guard against civilian casualties are currently under scrutiny following a high-profile mistaken drone strike in Afghanistan that the Pentagon initially hailed a success.
Gen Frank McKenzie, the head of the US military's Central Command, described a high-risk operation where US forces started the mission by calling on occupants of the building to evacuate.
Six civilians safely left the first floor, but then a massive explosion followed, the commander said.
“It killed everyone on the third floor, and in fact it ejected multiple people from the building, including Haji Abdullah," Gen McKenzie said, using another name for Al Qurayshi. He added that the intent of the raid was to capture, not kill, Al Qurayshi.
One official said the former ISIS leader had overseen the group's networks globally and was “the driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi religious minority in north-western Iraq in 2014 and the enslavement of thousands of young Yazidi girls using rape as a weapon of war".
The raid was complicated by a mechanical failure of one of the helicopters used by US forces, who then destroyed it at a nearby location.
“Last night's operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield and sends a strong message to terrorists around the world,” Mr Biden said. “We will come after you and find you.”
The operation came as ISIS has been attempting a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the region, including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a Syrian prison.
US special forces landed in helicopters and began an assault on a house in the rebel-held corner of Syria, engaging in clashes for two hours with gunmen, witnesses said.
Residents described continuous gunfire and explosions that jolted Atmeh, an area dotted with camps for people who have been internally displaced due to Syria’s civil war.
The operation marked a military success for the US at an important time after setbacks elsewhere — including the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal — have led allies and opponents to conclude US power globally was weakening.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney welcomed the strike as "very good news".
"Obviously ISIS is a great threat not only to our interests in the Middle East, but also around the world," Mr Romney said.
Fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham praised a "successful operation against a very dangerous man" and said it vindicated a continued US troop presence in Syria.
A number of groups with links to Al Qaeda operate in the country's north-west, the last major bastion of rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad in the decade-long Syrian war. Leaders of ISIS have also hidden in the area.
A US official noted that the area in northern Syria is under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), an Al Qaeda affiliate. Al Baghdadi was hiding in the same area.
Jennifer Cafarella, a counter-terrorism expert at the Institute for the Study of War, saw a pattern emerging.
“Two successive ISIS leaders have received safe harbour in areas dominated by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a successor to Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate that seeks to portray itself as a moderate actor worthy of international engagement,” Ms Cafarella told The National.
“Rhetoric aside, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham's rule in north-west Syria continues to provide a range of transnational actors a relatively secure base from which to operate.”
Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Centre, saw the operation as more of a tactical win than a strategic victory for the US against ISIS.
“While it's important and could very well cause issues for ISIS, those issues will likely be operational, not organisational,” Mr Clarke said.
“It will disrupt whatever campaign was in the works, but it's not a backbreaker for the organisation. More of a temporary inconvenience until a new leader is selected and announced.”
Still, Mr Clarke said the timing was ideal for Washington and its allies.
“Given the recent prison break operation in Hassakeh, ISIS was gearing up for a broader offensive and looking to capitalise on its momentum to kick a terror campaign into overdrive,” he noted.