US raid targets IS group leader in Syria: Atmeh resident recounts helicopter attack
The early morning hours of February 3, American special forces carried out a helicopter attack in the northeastern Syrian town of Atmeh. Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi died during the attack. At least 13 people died in the strikes, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, including three children and four women. A resident of the neighbourhood told the FRANCE 24 Observers team what he witnessed.
Mid-day on February 3, US President Joe Biden said in a statement that IS group leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi had been “taken off the battlefield”. Al-Qurayshi died after setting off a bomb, killing himself and members of his own family, according to a senior American official.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 13 people were killed in the operation. There were no American casualties, the White House confirmed.
The military arrived via helicopter in Atmeh, Syria near camps for displaced persons before the clashes broke out. Videos of the raid were filmed by local residents, documenting heavy gunfire.
لحظة قيام مروحيات التحالف الدولي بقصف اطراف بلدة اطمة شمال ادلب قبل قليل.— انس المعراوي (@anasanas84) February 2, 2022
مازالت الاشتباكات مستمرة في المنطقة pic.twitter.com/n1UXfxOWYX
‘We had no idea that a leader of the Islamic State Organisation was staying in the house’
Ahmed (not his real name) lives 200 metres away from the home targeted by American special forces. He works for a local NGO that helps refugees.
We were woken up by the deafening sounds of helicopters flying over the area at a very low altitude. It was 1:10am. In a panic, my wife and two children and I sheltered in the living room on the ground floor.
Then we heard soldiers who had landed on the ground. A voice on a loudspeaker demanded, in Arabic, the occupants of the house to come out with their hands on their heads, “for the safety of the women and children”. This all happened over the course of an hour.
#أطمة طلعت الكراسي تصاعد النار بسبب القصف المروحي للمكان— ليث حداد (@layth_hadad12) February 2, 2022
مازالت عملية الإنزال والاشتباكات مستمرة إلى الآن
مضادات الجولاني حالهم يقول نحن لا علاقة لنا بما يحصل على العلم بإن المكان المستهدف قريب على أهم نقطة عندهم (معبر_دير بلوط)؟؟؟؟@HuthaifaAzzam1 pic.twitter.com/awWNiCAkm7
After that, the helicopters started to strike the house. The debris shattered the windows of my house and car. The children were scared and crying. We also heard what sounded like gunfire, but it was brief.
By 3am, they were gone. I went outside to check. The White Helmets [also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue group in Syria’s rebel-held regions] rescue units were already there. I saw the bodies of three children, women too, and pieces of flesh all over the place, in and around the house.
According to reports from our neighbours this morning, the family living on the ground floor was evacuated by the US special forces before they struck the upper floor with the helicopters [Editor's note: the mother of the family confirmed this account in an interview with a local TV channel].
We had no idea that a leader of the Islamic State Organisation was staying in the house. All we knew in the neighbourhood was that there was a couple with two children. So we were very surprised to see so many dead bodies.
We are even more surprised by the news that Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was in the house, because the Idlib region is militarily controlled by the Ahrar al-Sham organisation, which considers the Islamic State to be an enemy organisation.
We were able to locate the home that US special forces targeted in the raid, with Ahmed’s help. The building that was struck was a three-story home surrounded by olive trees. The location corresponds to images broadcast by Syria TV.
American helicopter destroyed
After the US special forces withdrew around 3am, according to eyewitnesses, one of their helicopters landed near the town of Jindires, around 10km north of Atmeh. It was forced to make a landing due to a mechanical problem, according to the New York Times. It was later destroyed with an American weapon.
We were able to identify the vehicle as a UH-60 Blackhawk, using images of the helicopter shared on social media.
حطام الطائرة الأميركية التي عثر عليها في ريف #عفرين والتي دمرت خلال العملية قرب بلدة #أطمة.— حسن جنيد - Hasan Jneed (@Hasan_Jneed) February 3, 2022
The wreckage of the American plane that was found in the countryside of #Afrin and which was destroyed during the operation near the town of #Atma. pic.twitter.com/dSA2SauuXb
In October 2019, US special forces conducted another raid in the Idlib region, resulting in the death of the then-leader of IS group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Several jihadist groups are present in the region, which is the last bastion held by opponents to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Millions of people displaced by ongoing conflict are also located there, in crowded camps. It’s suspected that jihadist leaders have used the camps to hide out.
Thursday’s operation comes after an attack on a prison in Hasaka, where jihadists freed dozens of jailed IS group members, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The fighting that ensued left 373 people dead, including 268 IS members, 98 members of the Kurdish forces in charge of the prison and seven civilians, according to the latest reports.